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?