Caught you thinking naughty thoughts, didn’t I?! No, I am not talking about hot sex scenes in some of the soft porn that passes as romantic fiction these days. (Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters must be fairly spinning in their graves!)
I mean the writer’s use of sensory allusions to add dimension to any passage in a work of fiction—and in non-fiction, too, as a matter of fact. My writing group—bless them! bless them!—often catch me up on my “talking heads.” A timely appeal to any of the senses can add hugely, albeit subtly, to a scene and help ground the characters and the reader.
Basically, those sensory touches add mood. Weather is almost a cliché in setting mood—think Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” which Schultz borrowed from someone else (Edward Bulwer-Lytton?) Colors alone can do it—that fiery red dress on the heroine is meant to communicate passion as opposed to the melancholy of her mother’s mourning gray.
Moviemakers spend jillions on background music for everything from scary horror scenes to sunny sailing excursions. Writers do not have such audio tools, but we can be aware of things like a falling ember in a fireplace, the sounds of cars or carriages from outside, the sounds of footsteps—shuffling? determined? skipping? approaching? receding?—even the clearing of a throat may lend dimension to the message being delivered.
Tactile details help too. Is the seat on that chair smooth leather or cool horsehair or plush velvet? What shade of green is that grass? Has it the softness of spring or is it the straw of late summer? How does such a detail contribute to the overall impression of a room or an environment? How does it contribute to the broader purpose of the passage? Touch is obviously the key element of sensuality in love scenes, but it can be tremendously important in any scene.
Don’t forget the olfactory sense. The reader’s nose is sensitive to more than just the perfume or shaving soap of a character. Describing a kitchen? Mention the smells that might emanate from that place—in real time or not. A stable or a barn? ‘Twould take a real novice to ignore the nose in that description. Sea air just smells different. The forest after or during a storm smells different from when it is dry and the sun is drifting through tree limbs and making shifting patterns on the ground.
Taste? Incorporated with other senses, this one, too, must not be ignored. Want a reminder of the effects of the essential tastes of sweet, salty, bitter? Watch a baby experiencing these sensations and try to describe his or her reactions!
Finally, pay attention to shapes. Take a cue from theatre stagers when creating backgrounds for your characters to act in. Stage directors know, for instance, that harsh, jagged lines will reinforce highly dramatic clashes, while circles and swirls subliminally suggest a smooth, unthreatening mood for another kind of scene.
Do keep reminding me, Lone Mountain Writers!!