Exercises Sensory Description

Exercise 2: Describing Characters

Last week, we talked about describing a setting. This week, let’s describe a person. When you think of a favorite book, you can usually visualize the protagonist. The author has found a way to describe that character so well that you can picture them in your mind. A more recent trend is being vague in character descriptions so the reader can fill in the details as they please. However, even when the author is vague with a physical description, they still usually slip in information like a favorite clothing style or distinctive behavior.

There are so, so many cliches to be aware of when you describe your characters. Some of the big ones are things like:

  • Describing your character while they look in a mirror.
  • Comparing eyes to gemstones
  • Sneaking description in with action beats, e.g. “Her long black hair swished behind her as she ran.” 
  • Comparing skin or body parts to food–a lot of people consider this inappropriate.
  • Sexualizing or objectifying female characters at random times–there’s a whole subreddit devoted to this, btw.
  • Sexualizing children–please, please don’t do this.

Note that I said you should be aware of cliches, not that you should necessarily avoid them (except for that last one) : a cliche becomes a cliche because it works. I don’t feel like you should rely on them, but sometimes it’s the best way to grab a reader. Tall, dark, and handsome might be all we need to know about a minor character.

Here is today’s exercise:

Describe your main character. It’s okay to be somewhat vague about their physical descriptors as long as you’re able to leave us with a good impression of your character’s personality. Try to limit this to two to four paragraphs; don’t go any longer than a page.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt

Sensory Description Writing Advice

Get Emotional

If somebody asked you what’s the most important element of storytelling, what would you say? Plot? Characters? Setting?

Those are all things that matter in a story, but I don’t think any of them is going to keep someone invested in a book if they don’t have a reason to care about what’s going on. Reading is an intimate conversation between an author and their audience; a book isn’t like a television or a radio that somebody might leave on for background noise while they do chores or stare at their phone. They are actively engaged in your work, and if your reader doesn’t have a reason to emotionally invest in your story, they’re going to put it down and walk away.

So how do you create that emotional connection? For me, it’s something that I keep in the back of my mind as I write, but tackle in depth when I edit. I do have a few tips that might help you, though.

  • Read. Think about your favorite book. How did it make you feel? Read it again, or read your favorite section of it, and try to really analyze the language the author used. How did they describe what was going on? Think about what most effectively put you into the character’s shoes, or into their head, and then try to break that down and apply some of it to your own writing. Don’t do it word-for-word, obviously, but don’t be afraid to try and imagine one of your scenes in your favorite author’s voice as an exercise.
  • Consider your genre and audience. It’s probably safe to say that people read to escape their everyday lives–but what they read tells you what kind of escape they want. Are they looking for an adventure? Do they want mystery and intrigue? Genre matters. When somebody wants suspense and thrills, they’re not likely to pick up a mystery novel that features a house cat as the detective. If somebody’s reading romance, it’s probably because they want to feel loved–so think about things that give you the warm fuzzies (or things that make you feel scared, or sad, or excited depending on your genre) and try to include some element of that in your writing.
  • Use sensory language to set the scene. This one is a balancing act. You can’t do it too much because your exposition will get drawn-out and boring, but you need to learn how to use words to create a mood that your readers will experience with all of their senses. If they can imagine themselves existing within your setting and atmosphere, making them feel for your characters is that much easier. Be sure to check out the exercises I’ve been posting! This month, they’re all about sensory description.

I also want to caution you about using personal experiences to insert emotion into a story. Writing can be cathartic, however if you go too deep into your own head, you might end up creating a scene that doesn’t mesh well with your characters or your plot. If you disrupt your reader’s suspended disbelief, that scene that you poured your heart into may not resonate with them–and it might put them off the book entirely. I was beta reading for someone once who wrote all of these scenes of a character suffering at the hands of an abusive parent, and none of it was relevant to the story. The inciting incident took place well after the character had moved away and cut off contact with their family, and almost no part of that character’s arc was connected with their past in a meaningful way. It was a really sad self-insert and it didn’t fit that character’s story at all. Worse, because it was so personal to the author, they did not like hearing that the story would have been better without those scenes. It’s okay to draw upon personal experience but, unless you’re writing a memoir, you need to use a light touch.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m sure I’ll touch on this subject again when I finish my rough draft and get into editing mode. Conflict is another great way to influence reader emotion, but there’s so much there that I’ll probably discuss it in depth later. Dialogue is another thing we’ll save for another day.

What draws you into a scene? Do you have a book that’s your favorite escape? Is writing an emotional outlet for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

Image Credit: Jonas Jacobsson, Unsplash.

Exercises Sensory Description

Exercise 1: Sensory Description

Sensory description is basically what it sounds like–writing descriptive exposition that appeals to all of the reader’s senses. When you do it successfully, it’s a good way to draw your reader into a story. If you can show your reader a meal they can almost taste, a dreary winter day that makes them feel clammy and cold even though they’re warm and dry in their bed, or a heartbreak that makes them shed a tear, you’ll have them locked in until the last page.

For the next few weeks, the exercise prompts I post here will be about helping you write with all of your senses.

Describe a day at the beach (or the park if you’ve never been to the beach) using as many of the five senses as you can. Try to keep it shorter than one page. The focus should be on setting the scene, so don’t worry about making this a proper story with a real beginning, middle, and end.

Image Credit: Mark Kamalov, Unsplash.