Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Icing On The Cake

Today's post is an article that I wrote for a Children's Writer's Newsletter a few years ago. Although originally geared to people who write for children, the information works just as well for those who write for adults. I interviewed two people I considered experts in their field for the article. 

The Icing On The Cake
By Nancy Julien Kopp

A cake with no icing is about as appealing as toast with no butter. The
basic food is there, but the special something that makes it taste so good
is missing. The icing makes the cake sweeter, prettier, and more
appealing. A story may have a good plot but without the little extra, it
may end up being rather ordinary.

Sensory details enhance a story like the icing on that cake. We use our
five senses hundreds of times a day without being conscious of doing so.
Think about the many every day things you do that involve your senses.
When you look out your kitchen window and see a bird, your mind registers
more than the fact that you saw a bird. You know that it is a bird, you
know the color, the size, and perhaps the sound it makes, you know how
soft the feathers would feel if you stroked it. We see, hear, smell, taste
and touch with our daily experiences, so why not include them in our stories?

Children relate to things in their personal surroundings. They know that
the bristles of a brush might feel scratchy. They squeal with delight at
the sound of the ice cream vendor, and they wrinkle their noses when
taste-testing a new food not to their liking. Include these experiences in
the stories they read, and you could end up being a sought-after
author-the writer who made the story come alive.

Margaret Shauers, author of many children's stories and regular columnist
at Write4Kids, says "The way humans communicate is through shared
experiences and emotions, and we experience life through the five senses."
Ms Shauers has a word of warning. "We rely too much on sight and need to
hone our skills at the other four. Keeping a sense diary helps-a short
sentence or two about each sense every day." She admits that it is easiest
to include sight and sound in children's stories. Touch runs a close
third, but taste and smell are senses she must concentrate on when she writes.

Look at the sentences below. Which example in each set is more interesting?>

1.  Sam saw a big wave.  Or   Sam's heart leaped in his chest when he
spied the huge wall of water headed his way-taller than his basketball
goal at home.

A few added words allows the reader to see the wave headed for Sam.

2.  Sally heard thunder.    Or   Sally covered her ears when thunder
boomed overhead and echoed across the prairie. The wind whistled through
the tall grasses as she raced toward home.

We know that the noise is very loud if Sally has covered her ears, and we
can discern the sound in the grass, too, through the active verb form.

3.  The dead mouse smelled bad.    Or    The rotten stench of the dead
mouse made Susie gag, and clap her hand over her nose and mouth.

Gagging and covering her nose and mouth illustrates the nasty smell so
much better than simply telling the reader the mouse smelled.

4.  Tommy didn't like the vegetable.    Or    The slimy, green spinach sat
on Tommy's tongue and refused to move any farther. He'd never be able to
swallow the bitter stuff.

Here we not only know what the taste is, but we can also see the vile
veggie Tommy is trying to eat.

5.  Jody petted the cat.  Or   Jody giggled when the cat's soft fur
tickled her hand as she stroked him.

The sense of both touch and hearing are evident in this last sentence.

Did you notice that the first sentence in each group was a telling
sentence, while the next one showed what happened. Using sensory details
remedies too much telling.

Picture book author, Barbara Santucci, pays close attention to sensory
details in her three picture books--Anna's Corn, Loon Summer, and Abby's Chairs.
Ms Santucci says "The more sensory details we include, the richer our
writing becomes, and the more able we are to show and not tell the story
plot and the emotions we are trying to convey." Anna's Corn is a story
built around the sound of corn growing in Anna's grandfather's field.
There is, of course, a good deal more to the story, but the music of the
corn Anna remembers figures strongly in this tale of loss.

Ms. Santucci adds "Our writing should create concrete and vivid images in
the minds of readers that help them experience the emotions of the
characters, thereby creating a mind and heart connection between the story
and the reader."

That "mind and heart connection" is what a children's author strives for.

Adding lively sensory details will achieve that connection more easily.
For most of us, it's not a given. We need to practice writing those
sensory details so that they become second nature when writing a new
children's tale. Let sight, sound, smell, taste and touch be the icing on
the cake in your stories.

* Keep a Sense Diary. Write a short sentence or two about each sense
    * Practice writing phrases that include sensory details
    * Watch for sensory details when you read.
    * Be observant. Take note of the sensory details in your daily life.

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