Descriptive Writing and The Five Senses

The Excerpt

“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”

Sitting in the water, [Leisel] imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her.

The Book Thief: “The Smell of Friendship” by Markus Zusak

The Lowdown

My senses let me live. Imagine the chaos of colorless traffic lights or navigating staircases with numb feet. In the same way, stories construct a world around me when I read. Writing, I rely on senses to wrap the plot and its players in something accessible. If I couldn’t imagine Harry Potter’s scruffy black hair or hear ghoulish horses pounding behind Frodo Baggins, the stories would lose dimension and deflate.

I read an excellent blog post about writing the five senses here.

Description inflates the story for readers, but it also catches the mood. Here is a brief example of how The Book Thief does that.

“You Dummkopf–you idiot.”

Clouds were filing in now, big and clumsy, and more kids were calling out to her, watching her seethe.

The main character is being called an idiot, and something as trivial as clouds are playing into that. I go gaga for writing that builds on itself!

The Task

Write a short description that uses the senses. Make sure it conveys your intended meaning. Here are some ideas, but it could be anything, really.

  1. Twins in a pie-eating contest
  2. Pulling a tooth using string and a doorknob
  3. Tapdancing on a rooftop
  4. A plant sprouts in the wreckage of a plane crash
  5. Discovering a magical harp

The Sample

First, decide what to convey with the scenario. I start with a list of details that I want to include. I prune these details as I write to make sure each contributes to the message I am trying to convey.

Twins in a pie-eating contest

  1. The have clumpy blue stains on their dresses
  2. Their chins are crusted with flecks of pie goo
  3. They shoot looks out of the corners of their eyes and chew faster
  4. Their bangs are pasted to their foreheads with sweat
  5. Sweat wiggles down their temples like maggots
  6. The ferris wheel creaks and groans
  7. The air reeks of… something gross. 🙂

At the red-checkered table cloth, the competitors had trailed off one by one until only the twins remained. Before the contest, the audience had awwed sweetly when the girls sat down, their foreheads barely bobbing above the table. Now, each had flecks of pie goo crusted on her chin, blue stains on her prim dress, and clumps dangling from her untucked hair. Sweat wiggled down their temples like maggots.They shot deadly looks at each other and chewed faster. The ferris wheel creaked and groaned. Each time the judge saw one of the girls slowing down, he reached for the bell, but each time, he had to draw his hand back. The monstrous girls would not stop until they burst. The fairground reeked of chickens and burnt popcorn, but that did not stop the twins. They glared at each other between bites, racing forkful after forkful of pie to their stained lips.

I used my list of descriptions as a draft, revising an idea if it led me to something that better fit my mood. The last actually took longer to write than the description. I tried to come up with details that readers could experience but that also contributed to the message I was trying to send.

In this description, the message I wanted to convey is that the twins are so overly competitive that a light-hearted summer fair has become grotesque. Did it work?

This is an exercise that helps me with descriptions that create mood and use the five senses. I would love to read your descriptions too!

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