5 Senses Add Up to Texture

I have a theory.

If texture in writing makes the reader feel immersed in the story, and if writers achieve texture by adding layers of richness, then I think one way to do that is through sensory detail.  I suspect that the use of all 5 senses makes the reader fall into the story.  The reader thinks she’s right there, because she can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell what the characters are experiencing.  My theory is that readers don’t notice.  They are too busy being swept away by the story to notice the texture.

To test my theory, I decided to take a look at the first two pages of some of the books that have been suggested so far this month as examples of good use of texture.

Pamela brought it up first with Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier.  Copyright 1936.  I was expecting its language–on account of its age, setting, and subject–would produce a lot of sensory detail.  It did.

Then I looked at a few of the authors mentioned in comments from Kait’s post, defining texture (I chose these titles just because they’re on my shelf):

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Out of the Deep I Cry

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (#1, Sorcerer’s Stone, surprised me, so I also looked at #7, Deathly Hallows, to see if there were changes as the series evolved–there were)

Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates:  A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder

Tami Hoag’s Ashes to Ashes

And finally I looked at The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, which came up in Mary’s discussion about shadows.  I didn’t expect that hard-boiled would leave much room for sensory detail.  I was wrong.

Here’s what I found, in chronological order by copyright:

copyright / book title / # of times sensory detail is used in 1st 2 pp

1929 / The Maltese Falcon / 22

1936 / Jamaica Inn  / 23

1997 / Harry Potter #1 / 8

1999 / Ashes to Ashes / 18

2004 / Out of the Deep I Cry / 24

2007 / Harry Potter #7 / 16

2008 / Inspector Singh / 15

Is that a lot?  Too much or too little?  I don’t know.  I would encourage writers to take a look at their own manuscripts and see how their use of sensory detail compares to these well-textured examples.

The words I tagged as sensory detail will likely differ from what others perceive.  I tagged them if they made me see, hear, feel, taste, or smell some aspect of the scene.  I haven’t broken them down by type, although I noticed that most of them fall into the sight category, the easiest to use.  But each sample also contained examples of smell, which is an under-used and highly powerful sense.

This is just one exercise for studying successful books, but there are plenty of others.  Do you ever notice too much sensory detail?  Does it annoy you if there’s too much?

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10 thoughts on “5 Senses Add Up to Texture”

  1. Wow, this is impressive, Sue. I’m starting to see a pattern in this month’s topic that is fascinating me. Now I have to pay more attention. It would be fascinating to compare the emotional words (feelings) with the textural words (sensory) and see how those balance. Based on what we are learning this month, the textural words are subtle, but so important in bringing the reader into the story.

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  2. Oh, Hammett used a lot of sensory detail. What an interesting exercise, Sue.

    I think there is a balance and you can get too much. Especially if you try for every sense in every paragraph. I think you have to consider what you are trying to do in the scene. Then pick your sense(s). I love the detail, but yes, it can get too much and it does annoy me because it overwhelms me. I’m particular sensitive (ha!) to smell and taste. Those two can really get too much really fast. At least for me.

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  3. Wow, what a cool exercise, Sue! Love it! This post made me think of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, specifically the chapters from the blind Marie-Laure’s perspective. Sight was never used in any of the descriptions, and yet those were the scenes that really came to life for me. As a writer, I found it completely fascinating!

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  4. Yes, it’s always interesting to see how writers pull readers into story. So much to learn! Kate, thanks for reminding me of All the Light–that’s a great example of how other senses can be used.

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  5. Wow, Sue, gerat post and thanks for doing that survey. Come to think of it, the sensory details never seem to be intrusive to me but do give the more real feeling to a story and without them, the story feels blah. Big sticky going up on monitor right now: Sensory Details!

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  6. Sue, that’s a great exercise! I once heard that you should have every sense on every page, which is something I try to do in my revisions because some of those do NOT come naturally to me! I find taste and touch difficult. In my writing, that is …

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  7. As a reader, I like sensory details in a story. Those details help bring the characters and the scene to life. When I “look” at the world around me, it is filled with sensory input. Pages in books are really sensory limited, just words and paper. (Now before I go on, I do love the texture, weight, smell, the whole experience of real paper books, so don’t even start.) The details are why I am holding that paper, and the details must jump off the page or I don’t go on. Those details must activate all my senses so that I feel I am really there, right in the book with all the characters. I have to hear the traffic, the conversations, the bullet; see the house, the people, blood; smell the trees, the sweat, the blood. If I can’t experience these details (without the actual danger) I have no connection to the book and no reason to read on. Now, I don’t have to know everything. I don’t really need to know about clothing from head to toe and every speck of dust on a table — unless it is important later, a clue in the dust, a missing purple sock that was later found somewhere — stuff like that, but not socks described just for the sake of their being socks.

    So please, for the sake of all your readers, please, please, include those sensory details that will make me experience the story but not so many that I am overwhelmed. .

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  8. I think the world has to be real for the writer for the detail to come through in the writing like that. I wonder if most writers add in detail in revisions or right off the bat?

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  9. Great comments! I do agree that sensory details are so important. And whether or not we know our setting well, it’s easy to forget to convey those senses to our readers.

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  10. I think sensory details are a way of going into deep POV for the scene rather than the character. You have to come in an out of it just right because too much overwhelms the story.

    Great post!

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