Specific and Sensory Detail

What do these excerpts have in common?

“He came at her so fast that his wings painted blurs of light on the air, and even as Karou leapt aside again she was seeing his fiery imprint seared into her vision.” – Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Laini Taylor)

“She screamed like a river, the longest river you could imagine, and from time to time, words bobbed to the surface, like sticks.” – Chime (Franny Billingsley)

“I lived in a house cut steep into the bank. The chairs had to be nailed to the floor, and we were never allowed to eat spaghetti.” – Lighthouse Keeping (Jeanette Winterson)

“We’d been kissing all day – all summer – kisses tasting of different shades of lip gloss and too many Cokes.” – We Didn’t (Stuart Dybek)

Each of these examples uses specific sensory detail to paint a picture in your mind. Be it blurs of light, words that bob like sticks, chairs nailed to the floor, or lip gloss kisses – each is specific. Each is made tangible by the fact that they are not generic objects, but specific details that live in the fleshy-real world of the story.  I’m a sucker for good language, and the more I read, I notice that it’s specific and sensory detail that casts a magic spell upon me, pulling me into the fictional dream.

I’ve been reading Janet Burroway’s text book Writing Fiction and she has a few astute observations on this subject. In her chapter “Seeing is Believing” she says:

  • “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details…are the life of fiction…are the stuff of persuasiveness.”
  • “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.”
  • “The writing is in fact alive because we do in fact live through our sense perceptions…”
  • “If you write abstractions or judgements, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”
  • “You must select the significant.”

I find I get bored when a text skims on sensory detail. It means I (as reader) have to do the heavy lifting to imagine the world. But when a writer really immerses me in the sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste of a world, I find myself devouring each page and hungry for their next book!

One thought on “Specific and Sensory Detail

  1. I always look forward to your blog posts. You never disappoint. They’re as concrete and specific as the advice you give us in this post.

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