December 15, 2014
Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts
Mistake Number Eleven: The Lack of Sensory Detail
This is the eleventh blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important common mistakes. Today we’ll look at “The Lack of Sensory Detail,” a fiction mistake common with most beginners and takes some experience and skill to develop.
Too much description and narration
Switching viewpoints in the same scene
A negative tone throughout the story
Infallible or underdeveloped characters
Stilted or unnatural dialogue
No significant conflict
Weak transitions between paragraphs
Passive verbs instead of active verbs
Lack of sensory detail
Lack of emotion or action
Baker’s Dozen: (Telling instead of showing)
The Lack of Sensory Detail
Perhaps you’ve heard this statement about some of your writing or about someone else’s poor example flashed across the Power Point screen at a writers’ conference: “This writing is FLAT!” If that’s the case, then that writing is lacking sensory detail. Excellent is the writing that places the reader right in the middle of the action, feeling as if he/she is actually that main character and experiencing a wealth of sensory perks.
If you analyze weak fiction writing, you’ll discover the authors have majored on only one of our human senses: sight, even when the other senses could easily be incorporated. Also, the “sight” sense might be presented so weakly with hardly any description, we then have very lazy writing. However, as writers mature and learn from experience, they’ll start to incorporate as many of the other senses as possible: hearing, smell, taste, and touch. With the addition of just a few more sentences or two, the writer can make his/her fiction jump off the page!
As usual, let’s analyze a few examples to prove my point. Take note of what senses are used in each example, either too sparingly or with skill to make the passage come alive.
“I’ve had it, Bill!” Joan threw on her raincoat and rushed out of the house in anger, forgetting her umbrella. She ran to the car parked in the driveway, and when she tried to open the door, she remembered she left her keys in the kitchen. With the rain and sleet pelting down, she felt soaked to the bone from head to toe. When she ran back toward the house, she slipped and fell on the wet pavement.
“That’s what I get for leaving in a huff!” she grumbled to herself. She picked herself up and trudged back into the house, determined to apologize.
Incorporating Sensory Detail-
“I’ve had it, Bill!” Joan threw on her Sag Harbor black raincoat and rushed out of the house in anger, forgetting her umbrella. A mix of rain and sleet pelted down, instantly coating her long, blonde hair—her entire body—with a frigid chill. Still reeling from her fight with Bill, she took in several jagged breaths, the fresh, cold scent of an early spring shower filling her lungs. She paused a moment, gazing at her car in the driveway…debating whether she should get her umbrella or not.
“Oh, why bother?” she said. “I’m already soaked from head to toe.”
She ran to the car, and when she tried to open the door, she remembered she left her keys lying on the counter in the kitchen. As she ran toward the house, her high heels slipped on the icy pavement, and down she went with a hard smack on her backside.
“That’s what I get for leaving in a huff!” she grumbled. She gently picked herself up and edged her way back into the house, determined to eat humble pie.
Scrubbing a cooking pot at her sink, Louellen stared out her window. Snow was falling in her back yard. Her gaze shifted a short distance beyond the barn to her son John and his wife Katrina’s home. “I pray the ham will be tender as Alvira Kauffman promised. It sure smells good.”
Incorporating Sensory Detail-
“Katrina, just look at that snow! I pray everyone can make it to our Christmas dinner.” Scrubbing a cooking pot at her sink, Louellen stared out her window. Snow was falling in buckets against the backdrop of her spacious back yard with two towering naked maple trees, the big red barn, and acres of dormant fields all shrouded in white. Her gaze shifted a short distance beyond the barn and paddock to where her son John and his wife Katrina’s home and barn were barely visible in the curtain of falling snow. She took a deep breath, the mouth-watering aroma of a baking ham infiltrating her senses. “And I pray the ham will be as tender as Alvira Kauffman promised. It sure smells good.”
The riders lined up their horses and looked at the waterfalls a bunch of yards away. Above their heads was water over some rocks. It tumbled on more rocks that were even with the riders. The water made big white splashes and then was smooth. The waterfall droplets and sunlight made a rainbow, and off to one side a little stream flowed down the mountain. A breeze made the waterfall mist fly everywhere, hitting the riders in the face. Skye was amazed.
Incorporating Sensory Detail-
Lining up their horses, the riders sat gawking at nature’s water show half a football field away. Far above their heads, the falls flooded over a table of rocks arrayed on both sides by the greenest trees Skye had ever seen.
The water thundered as it crashed down over more layers of rocks, tumbling, tumbling, until it splashed onto large boulders level with the riders. There, billows of white foam faded into ripples that quickly smoothed into a serene pool as clear as glass.
A rainbow arched in a stream of sunlight. Off to one side the pool overflowed, forming the gushing stream that had found its way down the mountain to form Lackawanna Lake. Fed by the falls, a steady breeze and fine mist saturated the cool air around the riders, welcoming them to the secret and special place.
So, what do you think you can add to your manuscript to make it jump off the page and come alive for your readers? Think through the five senses, and don’t just rely on sight all the time.
Next time we’ll take a look at Mistake Number Twelve: Lack of Emotion or Action