They’re your key to 3-D writing.
by Andy Scheer
John Steinbeck applies the principle in the first paragraph of Travels With Charley, about his 1960 drive “in search of America,” with a pick-up camper and a standard poodle.
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. …
Steinbeck writes about the urge to get away literally — but it applies just as much to how you can take your readers away. How you can take them from their living room to another place, another time, another set of realities.
Did you overlook the technique? Look again at what he says evokes that urge:
Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement
That’s sensory detail. In this case, specific sounds. Not just a ship’s whistle, but “four hoarse blasts.” Not just a horse’s hooves, but “shod hooves on pavement.”
And notice the tactile description of the results. An “ancient shudder.” “Dry mouth … hot palms … churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.”
Searching for Specifics
Whenever I open a manuscript or a published book, fiction or nonfiction, I look for that rich sensory detail, those bits of specific description that will place a reader fully in the world the author has created.
Last night I browsed the opening page of False Claims at the Little Stephen Mine, a 1992 western by pastor and writer Stephen Bly.
A buzzing sound past his right ear and a simultaneous distant explosion tumbled Stuart Brannon from the back of his horse. Sage strained to bolt, but the rope, looped to a yellow pine log, held hard and fast to the horn.
With .44 drawn, Brannon jerked a ’73 Winchester from the scabbard and then fumbled to unhitch his black gelding. At the sound of a second shot, Brannon and Sage dropped to the dirt.
The horse was dead.
Rolling on the ground, Brannon dove behind the log, not chancing a look over the top. A heavy, deep blue autumn sky teased of summer. Masses of white clouds rumbled along like prairie wagons trying to make the pass before the first snows.
Brannon didn’t watch. He listened.
For now, don’t even consider Bly’s other techniques, the way he plunged his readers immediately into the action and how he used vivid, evocative verbs. Look just at the specific details—and how many of them appeal to the reader’s senses.
But you say you don’t want to write westerns. You want to write contemporaries, with a hint of romance. Fine. What sensory details do your POV characters, male or female, tend to notice? I recently read a general market story set on the Las Vegas strip, where the main character works in customer relations for a mega-casino. Here’s a paragraph from early in the first chapter, in a short bridge scene after the incident that starts the story:
The casino at the Babylon is much like any other. An intimate labyrinth, subtly decorated, windowless and, tonight, jam-packed with people all paying and praying for whatever it was they hoped to get in Vegas. A thin layer of smoke hovered over the crown, as the slot machines sang their come-on songs, and occasional shouts arose from the tables. Cocktail waitresses wearing painted-on smiles and little else darted in and out delivering free libations and collecting the empties. Young women paraded around in tight-fitting clothes they wouldn’t be caught dead in back home. Pierced and tattooed young men, their jeans hanging precariously across their butts, followed the young women. …
Later the author has reason to zoom in. Readers get the specifics (including prices) of designer-name shoes, dresses, and jewelry she and others wear. But for now, like a filmmaker providing an establishing shot, she offers layers of general descriptions and trusts the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. While her “Babylon” casino is fictional, she takes advantage of her research and makes frequent reference to actual details to recreate this setting for readers, whether or not they’ve ever been there.
Whatever story you’re writing, that’s your goal.