#DVpit, the Twitter pitching event for marginalized creators, returns for its fourth run this October. In preparation for the main event, Writer’s Digest is pleased to participate in the #DVpit blog hop by hosting a guest post by Bradford Literary Agent, Kari Sutherland, about using sensory detail to make your world come alive.
Like many readers, I like to be swept away into the world of a story—be it a historical novel, futuristic dystopian, urban fantasy, alien planet, or contemporary city/town. This means that beyond wonderful, magnetic characters, scintillating dialogue, and an engaging plot, the world in which all this unfolds needs to come alive. Some books have such atmospheric settings that the worlds themselves become a character. While this isn’t necessary for all stories, readers need to be able to picture themselves there—where your characters are—wherever there happens to be. Which is where you come in! Only you know what the world is like for your story, now you just need to crack open your brain and let everyone else experience it, too.
This guest post is by Kari Sutherland. Sutherland joined the Bradford Literary Agency in 2017 after a decade of experience in publishing from the editorial side. While at HarperCollins Children’s Books, she worked with bestselling and critically acclaimed authors on projects such as the #1 New York Times bestselling Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and the #1 New York Times bestselling Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard. With her editorial insight and experience of the entire publishing process, Kari is passionate about helping to polish each manuscript and equip her clients for success. She is actively seeking diverse voices for picture books, middle grade, YA, and adult fiction. For full submission guidelines, please visit www.bradfordlit.com.
Descriptive details are essential to this process and it helps to remember that there are up to five senses you can use to immerse readers in your world. There are some characters whose circumstances may limit or rule out one or more of the senses altogether, which means the remaining senses will come to the forefront and may be more refined than another character’s. Please note, you do not need to activate all the possible senses at once—that could be truly overwhelming! Some can come organically throughout the scene, some may not be possible for the character through whose POV we are experiencing the scene, and some may not be relevant to a particular sequence. For example, don’t stop in the middle of a chase scene so your characters can pause and describe the play of light across the forest floor as an army of zombies is chasing after them.
Sight: This is the most frequently used one for obvious reasons. What do your character’s surroundings look like? Is it a sparkling, clean, glinting laboratory with carefully-labeled test tubes and equipment? Is it the dilapidated, crumbling ruins of a stone house in the woods? What tools are at hand for our characters to use/interact with? This can be as basic as a book on a table or as pivotal as a hot air balloon for a journey. Who else is in the space? While the beginning of each scene should ground us in some way, remember that you don’t have to describe EVERY detail up front and that while a basic identifier (school, bedroom, space station, meadow) is helpful at the start, there are many other senses that can paint a more vivid picture of the setting.
Feeling: Touch is one of my favorite senses to read about. Your characters should be engaging with their worlds. Tell us about the thick, velvety fabric of a dress or the smooth, sleek leather of a car’s interior. Keep in mind characters don’t need to be touching anything with their fingers to give us this element. They could sink into a fuzzy chair, lean against a rough brick wall, plunge their toes into the sand, etc. Remember other objects/people can touch your characters and the world itself acts on them through weather, too.
The very air around a person informs us about the world and sets the scene. This is an excellent forum to show readers about the setting rather than telling them things. For example, goosebumps on a character’s arm immediately convey cold while sweat dripping down her forehead will swing us into a hot, humid climate. Choking on the dust of an old building, the sand in the desert, or the smog from an over-polluted city—each one will trigger a distinct world for the reader.
Hearing: Sounds are another great way to immerse your readers in your world. The clacking of a train, the hum of a generator—or the ominous silence when it is shut off, the chattering of birds and insects, the cacophony of a crowded marketplace, and the peaceful quiet of a garden can all round out the picture of the world. If your characters are able to hear and talk, they can and should interact with sounds in an organic way—shouting to be heard over a pounding waterfall, whispering in the hush of the library, crunching ice in their drinks, etc.
Smell: We rarely think about this sense and yet it is strongly tied to memory. So use that to your advantage! Many people will relate to the comforting scent of cookies in the oven (or them burning if you grew up in my house) or the hint of perfume on clothes. Don’t forget unpleasant smells have an even stronger effect in bringing your world alive—the rotting of garbage, sulfuric pools, the sting of an antiseptic cleaner.
Taste: There’s not always an opportunity for taste in your scene, which is fine, don’t force it. But if your characters are gathered at lunch, keep in mind what their food will taste like. Nor do your characters have to be eating to taste something—the copper tang of blood if she’s in a fistfight, gritty dirt blown into his mouth in a storm, the saltiness of the sea in the air on a voyage are all examples of incorporating this sense into your scene.
Wherever we are, you can use sensory details to bring the world to life, break up exposition and dialogue, and invite your readers to step into the skin of your characters on a visceral level. Your characters do not exist in a void (usually…space dramas aside), so show us that and let them interact with their surroundings throughout a scene. Incorporating the world around your characters grounds the story and, as an added advantage, sensory inputs are generally easy things to weave back into scenes once you’ve finished getting down the plot and dialogue, which make them great tools in the revision process!
Can you think of a scene in your manuscript that would benefit from more sensory detail? Get cracking on those revisions! #DVpit’s pitch day for children’s and teen projects is October 2nd and adult projects can be pitched on October 3rd. #DVpit was created by Beth Phelan in February 2016. Please visit www.dvpit.com for more information, and stop by the resources page to check out the rest of the blog hop.
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