Use all six senses to make your story come alive
Sometimes, I don’t like to read another author’s work while I’m writing, other times I do. Since I began writing my current manuscript, I’ve started and stopped several books. But last week I picked up Neil Gaiman’s American Godsand haven’t been able to put it down. I find myself asking, “How does he do it?”
American Gods is a wildly creative and beautiful story. What I love most is how the story is so otherworldly—people coming back from the dead, gods walking around among us—yet feels so absolutely real as if it were playing out in front of me.
One of the ways Gaiman achieves this is through his use of detail, relying on all of the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste and even that sixth sense of intuition. His scenes are so rich that as a reminder for my own scenes, I’ve written the six senses on an index card to keep nearby as I write. Of course, not everything needs to be described in a scene but I like to look at my index card and ask myself if I’ve included as many senses as possible without being overdone.
Literally, you can turn to any page in American Gods and find incredible detail. Here’s one example in a scene where the main character Shadow’s dead wife comes to visit him:
He went back into his bedroom. He did not turn the light on. His wife was still on the bed. She had stretched out now, on top of his rumpled covers. Shadow opened the window and then passed her the cigarettes and the matches. Her fingers were cold. She lit a match and he saw that her nails, usually pristine, were battered and chewed, and there was mud under them.
The details are perfect and they bring us into the flow of the story—unlike this example below that I came across in another manuscript (probably one of the books I put down):
She slipped off her dirty, two-toned Rockports, leaned back on the camel-colored, leather sofa, and placed her perfectly manicured, size-8 feet on the ottoman.
- gives too much information (and fairly mundane information at that).
- uses too many adjectives before each noun—two each for three nouns in the sentence.
- is probably unnecessary. Unless this sentence adds to character or story development it’s unnecessary filler. In the Gaiman example, the details about the wife’s fingernails show her transformation from alive to dead.
In my next post, I’ll discuss how to use the sixth sense of intuition to enrich your scenes.
Exercise: Take a random scene from your manuscript and write down five new things for each of the senses that could fit into your scene. You won’t use them all, of course, but maybe there’s one or two details you can add to make the scene more complete. Identify five things you can see, five things you can feel, five things you can hear, etc.