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Writing Presumes an Audience

Sensory Detail - The Emotional Content of Story-Telling


By Charlene Smith (c)
Readers respond to sensory detail. If you can describe the call of a bird, how bark feels under fingers, the sight of a newborn foal on a misty morning, the aroma of coffee mingling with that of freshly baked bread, the taste of fresh truffles grated onto toast… readers will respond better to your writing.
    However, a danger is that in an attempt to describe you overuse words and phrases, you become like Jackson Pollock throwing words at the page without achieving his artistic effect. To appear smart or literary, you use big or obscure words. The purpose of writing is to communicate. The best writers use simple language.
     Lucille Moncrief writing in Medium notes: "Purple prose is flowery and ornate language. It sacrifices plot and clarity for indulgent detail. A piece of prose can be entirely purple, or throughout ornate bits are sprinkled. We call cases of the latter 'purple patches.'
      "Purple prose is like showing up in stilettos to go on a hike. The language doesn't match the occasion or the character. It draws attention to itself. It doesn't advance the action, clarify the plot, or reveal a character's intentions or thoughts. It's fluff — description for description's sake. Imagine being thirsty and drinking out of a fire hose instead of just getting a glass of water. This is what purple prose does. It drowns the reader."
     In sensory writing, and all writing, tell do not show. First-person – active tense - is always more powerful. Use writing (not big globs of heavy words) to convey drama.
Tana French in The Witch Elm gives a fantastic example of sensory detail done well at the start of Chapter Three:
      "The drive to the Ivy House, that Sunday afternoon, felt a lot like an acid trip. It had been months since I'd been in a car or been anywhere much outside my apartment, and the sudden torrent of speed and colors and images was way more than I could handle. Patterns kept popping up everywhere, frenetic and pulsing, dotted lines leaping out at me from the road, strobing rows of railings zooming past, grids of apartment-block windows replicating themselves manically into the air; the colors were all too lurid and had a shimmering electronic zing that made my head hurt, and the cars were all going much too fast, whipping past us with a ferocious whoosh and smack of air that made me flinch every time. We were in a taxi – Melissa's car was somewhere else or being fixed or something, she had explained but the explanation had been too complicated to stay in my head for any length of time – and the driver had the radio up loud, some talk show with a woman getting hysterical about being housed in a hotel room with her three kids while the host tried to make her cry harder and the taxi driver shouted an outraged running commentary over it all."
In the New Yorker, November 26, 2018, we have Raffi Khatchadourian writing in "Degrees of Freedom:"
     "For eighteen years, Jan Scheurmann has been paralyzed from the neck down. She is six feet tall, and she spends all day and all night in a sophisticated, battery-powered wheelchair that cradles her – half sitting, half reclining – from head to toe. In effect, the chair has become an extension of her body. To navigate the world in it, Scheuermann manipulates a cork-tipped joystick with her chin. She can move in this way with remarkable agility, but her height combined with the bulk of the chair and the unrelenting nature of gravity and matter, can limit her. Over the phone, though, it is possible to not ever think of her paralysis. She has a soft voice, a wry sense of humor, and a warm, gentle manner. Sometimes when she speaks she pauses to inhale: the deliberate breaths are necessary because her lungs do not automatically pull in enough air, but a listener tends not to notice them. Across a fiber-optic network, her words are converted into weightless digital information. She floats to you."
Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author, Per Petterson is filled with exquisite writing, here is an example –
     "Lars got there first, he grabbed the gun and swung it around and shouted:
'Look at me now!' And then he pulled the trigger. The report and the shock from the butt sent him to the floor with a shriek, and he did not aim at anything, he just wanted to hold the wonderful gun and be Jon, and he might have hit the woodbox, or the small window over the steps, or the photograph of grandfather with his long beard that hung just above the peg in a frame painted the colour of gold, or the light bulb that hung there without a shade and was never switched off so that anyone out in the dark would see its light in the window and never get lost. He did not hit any of those things, he hit Odd straight in the heart at close range. And if this had been something that happened in a western, those porous pages would claim that the very name of Odd had been written on that cartridge, or it was written in the stars or on one of the pages in the fat book of Destiny. That nothing anyone could have done or said would have made the lines that met in thatburning moment point any other way. That powers other than those controlled by man had made the mouth of that gun point in that direction. But that was not how it was, and Jon knew it where he lay huddled up on the grass of the meadow and saw his father come out of the house with his brother in his arms, and the only book where the name of Odd was written and could not be crossed out was the church registry book."


An excellent way to start?  Walk through a greengrocer or farmer's market, can you describe all the colors you see? The taste of that gorgeous Georgia peach? It's scent? The texture of its furry skin, the way its flesh feels against your teeth, and how juice slips through your fingers and into your throat...  Sit and watch people observe their body language, how they express or restrain themselves, always have a pen and notebook with you and take notes. Writers observe the world around them.

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