Monday, February 7, 2011

Making Sense of Sensory Details

Week of February 6—The Devil’s in the Details
Monday, February 7—Making Sense of Sensory Details

In my teaching career, I’ve delivered more sensory details lessons than any other topic. The use of the five senses is fundamental to children’s understanding of how write with details and serve as the simplest way to introduce kids to elaboration. And the good news is that writing sensory details comes naturally to most kids.

The most commonly used sense (and the easiest to use) is sight--describing what something looks like. Children (and some writers) tend to focus primarily on color when describing things. Of course, that’s a fairly simplistic approach to visual descriptions. I always try to help kids up the quality of their color descriptions by introducing them to more exotic names for color—crimson, cinnamon, brick-red. (Paint chips from your local home improvement store are great inspiration.) The next step for kids (and maybe for some writers) is to begin to describe other attributes seen in an item, person, place, or thing. Here’s an example from Linda Arms White:

     On Mama’s birthday, Clement drove up in his racehorse-sleek, midnight black pickup truck with the patent leather interior. He climbed out and, slapping his ten-gallon hat atop his head, shambled toward the house like a hound dog on its way to a flea dip.
     Clement’s dust hadn’t settled before Clyde roared up in his longhorned, rooster red pickup truck with the genuine steer hide interior. He clambered out and, putting a fifteen-gallon hat atop his head, shuffled toward the house like a calf on the end of a branding rope.

From: Come A Wind by Linda Arms White and Tom Curry (this book is out of print, but you can easily find used copies)

Linda does a fantastic job painting the picture with her descriptions. Can you see the two vehicles? The cowboy hats? The cowboys themselves? These great details are accomplished through the sensory details of sight (and tons of other good writing crafts).

Sounds can create setting, change mood, show action, and amp up humor. Picture book writers frequently add the sense of hearing with onomatopoeias (sound effects): THUMP! W-h-a-p! C*R*A*S*H! Kaboom! Adding a few sounds to a manuscript can add life to an otherwise hum-drum piece. Here’s an example of a non-hum-drum piece with details you can hear:

     Squish, squish, went Hetty’s wet shoes on the dusty road. Squish, squish, squish, squish, and Hetty said her walking words:

            Down the road,
one and two,
eggs for breakfast,

     Hetty was so busy doing her smooth walk, and saying her walking words, and admiring the eggs in the basket that she didn’t see a rock sticking up in the middle of the road. She walked along, getting closer to the rock with every step.

Eggs for breakfast,
eggs for breakfast,
Not a—OUCH!

From: Down the Road by Alice Schertle and E.B. Lewis

Some of us are old enough to remember the Brylcreem commercial that said: “A little dab’ll do ya!” Alice Schertle demonstrated that same concept with the sounds in this excerpt. The great repeating of the squish of shoes, the clickety-clack of eggs in a basket, the OUCH! of a stumped toe. Just a dab of sound to make the scene come to life.

I heard Janice Repka, author of The Stupendous Dodgeball Fiasco, interviewed by children in my school district. Repka said that one of her sons read a draft of her middle grade novel and said, “It’s not smelly enough.” She then went through each chapter being sure to add in a smell appropriate for each scene. What a smell . . . I mean swell idea!

Smells can immediately transport us. My Granny Raney passed away 30 years ago, but I can still recognize the smell of the perfumed powered she wore. The smell of coffee brewing always reminds me of mornings at home in Springfield, Missouri. Just the mention of a baby, can bring back the smells from the first diaper I ever changed as a babysitting teen. Here are a couple of smelly excerpts:

Drivin’ home we’re followed
by a chocolate-scented cloud.
And when folks get a whiff of it,
there gathers quite a crowd!

From: Whopper Cake by Karma Wilson and Will Hillenbrand

     Then it was Bonney Anne’s lunchtime. And when she gets hungry, everybody knows it.
     Braid Beard sniffed the baby food. “Shiver me timbers!” he yelled. “What be this vile-smellin’ swill?”
     “Strained spinach,” I told him.

From: Pirates Don’t Change Diapers by Melinda Long and David Shannon

I have to admit I don’t see lots of taste details in books. Kids at school have a difficult time with this, too. One of my favorite non-examples of a taste sensory details is:

            The chicken tasted like chicken.

Doesn't that just make you want to say, "Well, thanks a lot. That's much clearer now!"

Details of taste could be stated concretely (sweet and sour), exaggerated (sweet enough to rot your teeth), as a simile or metaphor comparison (tasted like medicine), or even symbolically (he could taste blood). I love poet and illustrator Kam Mak’s My Chinatown: One Year in Poems. Here are a few of his tasty sensory details:

·   But I don’t want to go to school,/where the English words/taste like metal in my mouth.
·   . . . round and perfect, sweet as clouds
·   . . . salty as the ocean
·   New Year’s Day!/Noodles for breakfast,/sweet rice cakes.

Just a 30-minute drive from my home is Pass-a-grille Beach. If you can’t feel some sensory details at Pass-a-grille, there is no hope for you. The sun on your shoulders, sand squishing between your toes, waves lapping at your ankles, and the occasional seagull landing bodily functions on your shoulder—just a typical afternoon at Pass-a-grille. What is not typical is the lovely writing and beautiful illustrations in the Caldecott Honor Book Coming on Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson and E.B. Lewis. Try these feelings on for size:

·   Mama’s hands warm and soft.
·   Then she pulled me close up to her, pressed her face against mine.
·   The kitten drinks the milk up, rubs against my leg like it wants some more.
·   It’s a slip of a thing. But its softness is big. And warm as ten quilts on my lap. Warm as Mama’s hands.
·   Good thing it’s too cold for fleas, Grandma says, coming in with more wood for the stove.

As picture book writers, we’re reminded again and again to leave room for the illustrator. Truthfully, novelists can use sensory details with abandon compared to picture book writers. In some ways it’s counter-intuitive. We must include sensory details to elaborate, to create a setting, or to describe a character, but we can’t overindulge in them or we’ll be telling the illustrator’s part of the story. It’s a fine line to walk—but, of course, that’s where revision and editing come in. We can write a first draft with every sensory detail we can image. Then as we edit and revise, we can pare those details down until we have the best, the most meaningful, the most crucial sensory details.

“It’s like sprinkles on a cupcake,” I tell my students. “Don’t crush the cupcake by pounding on the sprinkles. Take the sprinkles in your fingertips and lightly drop them on top of the cupcake.” The same with sensory details—a little sprinkle’ll do ya!

It’s Your Turn!
1. Practice writing sensory details. Describe a meal you eat today using all of your senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.
2. Evaluate the sensory details in your writing. Are you sprinkling them on for effect or crushing your cupcake (aka your story) with them?

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