A decade or so ago, the first five pages of a book caused me so much pterodactyl screeching, I had to develop a workshop in response. Given a choice between public speaking and having teeth chiseled out of my jaw, I would rather fling myself into the dentist’s chair, but I felt strongly enough about this that I embarked upon several engagements and advised a few hundred writers to Never Do This Shit.
That book was on sale recently. I thought, Surely it’s not as bad as I remember. I’ve mellowed in my old age.
Friends, I have not mellowed. I pterodactyl screeched nearly that entire decade-distant workshop from memory upon fresh exposure to those five pages. I have no idea where the old workshop script is, but I shall attempt to recreate it for you now, sans screeching (mostly).
The following is written with a presumption of intact sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. I am not qualified to lead a discussion about sensory impairments in writing. I apologize to everyone excluded by this falsely “all-encompassing” treatment.
In the absence of sensory impairment, there is an observational hierarchy of things that demand to be noticed, things that are chosen for close examination, and things that warrant only passive awareness.
In real life, our brains ceaselessly process and categorize all this information simultaneously. In the same instant, we can be aware there’s just the right amount of honey in the tea, the dog is gassy, the air conditioning is too cold in this spot, the walls are blue, and thunder’s booming loud enough to rattle the house. When we can’t find our car in a parking lot or think it’s Saturday when it’s actually Wednesday, we nonetheless have a broad sense of our position in space and time.
In writing, we don’t catalog every sensory stimulus the character might be experiencing at every moment because that would be both unnecessary and boring. There’s important storytelling to be done, so we select a few sensory details that further the story and arrange them in a logical order that reflects their importance. I’ve ranked importance by four categories: Urgency, Orientation, Relevance, and Garnish.
Loud noises, strong odors, and acute pains are imposed upon us. We have no choice about experiencing an ambulance siren, the reek of hot garbage, or a punch in the face. If that punch cuts your lip and floods your mouth with blood, even taste can be forced upon you. Jarring sensory input takes priority immediately when it occurs.
Urgent sensory input evokes an immediate response from the character. A car alarm going off right next to a character will first provoke some sort of physical reflex (startle, scowl, hand to her ear) and could further cause her to not hear a crucial part of a phone call or to be accused of attempted car theft, either of which will make her next action much different than what she planned to do before that assault on her senses occurred.
If the character can simply wait until the imposition ends and then carry on as if it never happened, it’s probably not a detail you need to use there because it stalls the story rather than furthering it.
Sensory Urgency can arise at any point during a scene. Whether it occurs at the beginning, middle, or end, it immediately takes precedence in the observational hierarchy.
Not every scene requires an incident of sensory Urgency.
Every scene does require sensory Orientation. Readers need to know where the characters are every time there’s a change of setting, as close to the start of that change as possible. Nothing takes place in a vacuum, and readers will supply their own setting if you don’t beat them to it. Once they’ve done that work for you, any belated attempt by the author to enforce a different setting becomes an argument. Avoid that argument by giving readers a sense of place as quickly as possible.
In a screenplay, the location is listed first thing at the beginning of every shot (INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY), and then it falls on scores of workers to put that location in front of the camera and, by extension, the audience’s eyeballs.
Novelists generally don’t get pictures, moving or otherwise, to accompany our words, so we have to describe the setting using the tools we have. Sometimes we can get away with screenwriter-like efficiency in the first line (They gathered in the living room at nine the next morning), particularly later in the story if reusing a location that’s been previously described. When more information is needed, however, a setting dump isn’t a great way to hook a reader into a scene.
We balance the need to quickly establish a sense of place with the need to always be interesting by feathering Orienting details into the action.
Goran tapped his foot in time with the antique clock ticking away the final seconds of their marriage. Lucija suspected he was as oblivious to the movement as he was to the Italian leather armchair serving as his throne—and the wife he didn’t deign to acknowledge.
In the midst of two sentences letting us know this couple is on the rocks, we have an antique, a fancy chair, and allusion to a throne and kingly hauteur, suggesting an environment of wealth. Within half a page, we could easily clarify whether it’s a living room, home office, business office, or lawyer’s office while keeping the story moving.
Goran tapped his foot in time with the dripping kitchen faucet that sent water down the drain in mockery of their wasted marriage. Lucija suspected he was as oblivious to the movement as he was to the cracked vinyl stool he straddled like a motorcycle—and the wife he couldn’t raise his eyes to acknowledge.
Drippy faucet, cracked vinyl, biker sprawl, and downcast gaze tell us Goran and Lucija’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. Another half page could clarify whether they’re in their derelict studio apartment, the break room at the chop shop where he files the serial numbers off stolen cars, or the basement where she’s going to torture him for what I’m sure are valid reasons.
These aren’t dazzling examples, but they work to demonstrate how just a few details begin to establish a sense of circumstance for the reader as soon as the scene opens.
The above examples rely heavily on visual cues (even the sounds can be traced to objects you can see). Sighted people generally perceive sight as their dominant sense, so it’s efficient to appeal to that one first. We instantly process a broad view of our environment. We can be aware of the room we’re in while looking out a window at trees in the mid distance and mountains in the far distance. We can’t hear, smell, touch, or taste anything on that distant mountain, but we can see it, which gives us information about our location that would be different if what we saw in the distance was the ocean. As you add more Orienting details, you can certainly pull in the other senses, but in the absence of visual obstruction or an Urgency issue demanding the use of a different sense, sight will usually take precedence in establishing Orientation.
It’s possible to use Orienting details at any point in the scene, but it is imperative to position the defining ones near the beginning of every change of scenery.
Stories are full of sensory Relevance. Progressive, selective sensory zoom clarifies information. These are sensory choices made by the character. Deliberately and with intent, she visually examines or sniffs or listens intently or runs her hand over an object. Taste almost always falls under this category because it’s rare to have things in our mouths against our will. (One exception is noted under Urgency. Every other example I can think of is also a sinister violation of the most intimate sense.)
The details you favor with the tightest focus tell readers what’s meaningful to the character and plot. A skyline of glittering skyscrapers tells us where we are. A man in a black suit at the front desk in the lobby of one of those skyscrapers who takes a sip of coffee and places the cup, which is marked with lipstick that isn’t his, so it covers three drops of fresh blood splattered next to the phone is inviting us on a journey.
Though close details are the most revealing, they aren’t generally the first pieces of sensory information provided in a scene. Urgency takes priority because if you reveal after two pages of dialogue that the conversation has taken place in the gaps between gunshots, you’ve not conveyed any urgency whatsoever. Before you ask the reader to focus on some small detail, they need context from Orienting details to help them interpret significance because blood on a reception desk is more suspicious than blood on a phlebotomist’s desk.
Sight, despite having the widest range, permits some control over sensory impositions. We can close our eyes or turn away from things we don’t want to see, in which case someone has to physically force us to look, unlike sounds and smells that are inescapable just by being deployed in our vicinity and skin that’s constantly measuring air temperature, at the very least. (NOTE: Somebody prying your eyelids open is going to fall under Urgency.)
Keep in mind you have to be aware of something to look away from it. A deliberate choice to not-see does require some description (can be just a hint of what’s there) and, sooner or later, some explanation of the avoidance unless the reason is obvious. We will all understand if the character doesn’t want to cast lingering looks at an overflowing toilet, but if she spins around and speedwalks away from the security guard at the bank when she sees he’s missing the tip of his left pinky finger, we’re going to need to know what the deal is.
The act of zooming in on smaller Relevant details creates tension. The characters are trying to figure out the story using the limited clues their sadistic author allows them to have. Are they looking at the right thing? Are they interpreting it correctly? Did they miss something important? Have they included information that’s not actually relevant and is skewing their results? Are they trying to hide information from someone else? Readers go along for that ride, but they’re also outside the story, peering ahead, trying to see where the author is headed, eager to solve the puzzle before you spell it out but hoping you’ve done something dizzyingly clever to lead them astray.
These are the details that will be unique to your characters and plot. Only you know what’s important enough to zoom in on in your story.
I think I called this tier something else for the workshop (Color? Seasoning? Mascara?), but that knowledge is lost to time. For me, this is where my editor says my presentation is bland and I should slide a sprig of rosemary under the bruschetta, so to speak. These details serve no functional purpose other than making the text more vivid.
She wore a black dress becomes Her black dress cinched beneath her breasts and fell in soft pleats that shimmered with iridescence as she moved.
Clothing is typically an Orientation detail that tells us about the situation and the character’s role in it. An uncomfortable article of clothing may be Urgent. Grandma’s wedding dress may be loaded with Relevance to the character and plot. The specific cut and color of those items is Garnish. That extra information doesn’t change anything about the story. If the reader prefers to envision an orange jumpsuit, the inconsistency won’t create any cognitive dissonance because these particular words are purely decorative.
Garnishing details aren’t the point. They accessorize more nourishing details you’re already serving to the reader.
How much you use Garnishing details is mostly a matter of personal style. I’m on the sparse end of the spectrum (hence my editors consistently getting on my case about it). At the other end are authors who lovingly, lavishly portray every stitch of embroidery on a bodice and anthropomorphize the spices in curry. Readers’ personal taste also ranges along that spectrum. I get dinged for not painting detailed enough pictures, while long paragraphs of description lose my attention, no matter how beautiful the prose is. If you tend toward an extreme edge, a good editor can help guide you closer to the middle, where the most readers will be satisfied, without trying to force your style into something excruciating for you.
And that brings us to a category with no place in the observational hierarchy:
I probably called this something nicer like “Irrelevance” in the olden times, but I’m not getting paid to be nice today.
There’s a big difference between decorative and unnecessary.
Describing the aromas of a restaurant while the character is working there or dining there or being chased through it by assassins is good Garnish and Orientation to setting, and possibly even Relevance, depending on the character’s background. If one of the aromas is smoke, you can check off Urgency, too.
Describing the aromas of a restaurant while the character is walking past—never to enter, never to return, never to make any personal connection, never to contemplate at any point beyond the moment of passing—is filler.
Occasional filler is inevitable. Sometimes there’s significance in our heads that doesn’t make it onto the page, and we end up with a rogue sentence. If you don’t do it a lot, editors might overlook it, trusting you to deliver significance eventually, and then forget about it before realizing it was a goof. Many readers won’t notice at all, and many who do notice will shrug it off, as long as it’s a rare goof.
Irrelevant information not only serves no purpose but delays getting to information that is doing something. Leading with irrelevant information squanders the reader’s faith in your ability to make a point. Don’t waste five pages describing every inconsequential thing from trash in the gutter to the color of the paint around the window the character uses like a mirror so she has an excuse to describe herself. Writers can’t afford to be meaningless for that long. Especially don’t do that and then mention the first thing that might be significant (i.e., an angry mob that’s been in place the entire time, yelling and waving signs) and fail to assign that any significance, rendering it as meaningless as the sight of litter and the smell of soy sauce.
Some irrelevant details can be repurposed to give them significance. Moved to the beginning of the scene, an angry mob waving signs Orients the reader with environmental information (this is a place where people are allowed to publicly protest, and these folks are peeved enough about their cause to put forth the effort). Their yelling, if used to affect the POV character’s behavior, falls under Urgency. That still doesn’t seem like the best use of a large, noisy feature with a lot of energy, so let’s give the crowd Relevance to the character and plot.
The protesters could be obstructing the character’s route to her destination, forcing her to go through or around them or to decide this is an ill omen and she should change her plans entirely. If the character has committed a crime and needs to pass undetected, a group of hostile witnesses will not be a welcome development—particularly since protests attract both news crews and law enforcement. Perhaps the character can skulk around the fringes of the protest, light-fingering a hat, sunglasses, and a scarf to fashion a disguise, thereby using the obstacle productively, as well as underscoring her criminal tendencies. Perhaps she dives into the crowd to evade a cop who saw her stealing an element of her disguise, and that’s how her face ends up on the evening news, which tells the bad guys her last known location.
That’s using observations to tell a story, as opposed to randomly listing water bottles and car exhaust and “I have a ponytail!”
Real life is jam-packed with things of no particular significance. Stories are not real life. Even a “true story” doesn’t give an accurate account of every speck of dust, cheeping bird, and full bladder. Writers choose the words that tell readers what’s important. Dumping unimportant information on readers makes it difficult for them to discern what matters, and they may decide nothing does and stop reading.
Be a good guide on the journey through your story. Show readers the landmarks of Urgency, Orientation, and Relevance, and learn to distinguish Garnish from Garbage.