One of the tips I have students practice a lot in my college classes is writing using their senses. In case you have forgotten how to do this from your writing classes, it means to write using your sharpest senses. Start any passage by asking yourself these questions:
What did it smell like?
What did it look like?
What did it taste like?
What did it feel like?
What did you hear?
Sharpening your senses will make your writing vivid. Remember: we are shooting for the ideal, which is to transport people to that moment, place, or situation. When a reader becomes completely engrossed by your words—your magic ability to string words together to create a seamless paragraph that is telling and compelling—you have successfully transported them to that moment in your work.
Here’s an example from my latest novel entitled Inn Significant. In it, the protagonist and narrator, Milly, opens the contents of her dead husband’s box that she forgot she had moved with her into her new cottage at an inn. She loved her husband more than anything. Here’s the scene:
When one lone box remained, I opened it. I must have forgotten to label it. Gil’s belongings were inside the box. As soon as I lifted the lid, an aroma I had been familiar with for fifteen years wafted into the air, and I remembered all that I had saved. Gil’s favorite ballcap, the Orioles hat he bought at the ballpark when we went with a group of friends to the game; his favorite t-shirt from our trip to Italy; his college sweatshirt I seemed to wear more than he did; his wallet made of Italian leather; several cards and letters I wrote to him over the years; the Burberry watch I gave him on our tenth anniversary. I picked up the shirt, the one I could picture him in when I closed my eyes that said “Italia,” and brought it to my nose. He couldn’t really be dead; there was still a scent of him in the clothing. His wallet contained a picture of the two of us. I sat down on the floor of my parents’ cottage wishing I’d never opened this box. I wept uncontrollably, ignoring all the advice I’d received from Gretel, Angela, my parents, my sister, and even Miles.
After many minutes of inhaling the scent of my dead husband and having a complete breakdown, I heard the knock at the door. (from Inn Significant, by Stephanie Verni, copyright 2017)
In this scene, I wanted readers to understand that she could still smell her husband, even though he was no longer living. In her mind, she was having trouble acknowledging that he is dead. And while I never come out and say he smelled like——, it is understood that he had a smell that she could identify. The description of what she finds is vivid; she recounts each item for the reader so the reader can “see” what she’s uncovered from the box…his Orioles ballcap, his Italia shirt, the leather wallet. The reader can visualize all this stuff and can then, also, feel empathy for Milly as she removes it all, one by one, from the box.
When I’m teaching a writing course at my university, I use this example in class: What do you picture if I say, “The house at the corner of the street.”
If I say that to you, we all picture different houses at the corner of a street.
Now, if I say this, “The white house with green shutters, overflowing, vibrant flower boxes, and a curved slate walkway with a white picket fence,” a clearer picture comes to the reader’s mind. It’s easy for us to use our imaginations, but we appreciate that we actually can “see” the image the writer is creating for us.
Why do you think our mouths drop open when we visit Diagon Alley at Universal Studios? It’s because it looks exactly the way J.K. Rowling described it in the Harry Potter books. The description has come to life.
And so should yours when you are writing.
Allow yourself time as a writer to do this.
Practice using your senses; they will take you places.
Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.