How Fiction Writers Can Use Sensory Detail to Set Mood

Vivid sensory detail is what brings stories to life. Sadly, many writers ignore sensory detail, for the most part. They’ll show a few things the POV character sees, and, on rare occasion, might note what the character hears or smells.

If you want to write compelling fiction that transports readers into your story, you need to maximize bits of sensory detail for the best effect.

That doesn’t mean you cram full every paragraph with smells and sounds and textures. What it does mean is to strategically put in details that not only enhance the mood of the character but are things your character would actually notice.

Staying in deep POV is essential. When writers drop in sensory details that wouldn’t be on the character’s radar, that’s author intrusion. But the greater travesty is leaving out what a character would obviously notice.

Here’s an example: a character walks into a diner and sits at a table. She picks up a menu and sips cold water from a glass, waiting to order. The author fails to show us the smells that hit her when she walks in, the sounds of people talking and eating (silverware clattering against plates, etc.), the feel of the air and the lighting (temperature, humidity), the feel of the wet, cold glass in her hand, the coolness of the water going down her throat.

Yes, you can go overboard with sensory details, but your character is a physical body in the world, and she perceives through her senses.

When a character moves from the inside of a building to outdoors, she should immediately notice the weather, how the air feels, what she hears and smells–not just what she sees.

And, most importantly, her mood will affect what she notices and how she processes those things.

This is essential to great storytelling. Every word in a scene needs to reflect the character’s mood and mind-set.

Let’s take a look at some passages that have wonderful sensory detail.

The Constant Gardener (John LeCarré):

The mountain stood black against the darkening sky, and the sky was a mess of racing cloud, perverse island winds and February rain. The snake road was strewn with pebbles and red mud from the sodden hillside. Sometimes it became a tunnel of overhanging pine branches and sometimes it was a precipice with a free fall to the steaming Mediterranean a thousand feet below. He would make a turn and for no reason the sea would rise in a wall in front of him, only to fall back into the abyss as he made another. But no matter how many times he turned, the rain came straight at him, and when it struck the windscreen he felt the jeep wince under him like an old horse no longer fit for heavy pulling.

The POV character in this brilliant novel is on a quest to find out how his wife died, no doubt murdered. Danger, intrigue, lies, and obfuscation impact his efforts. This opening paragraph to a scene shows him traveling a treacherous road to dig up some truth. Now, LeCarré could have had Justin Quayle driving along a peaceful, flat road on a sparkling sunny day, but that would not have served his purposes (unless Quayle felt the irony and sting of the contrast between the day and his dark mood and task).

Every word in this single paragraph sets mood and reflects on Justin’s task as metaphor. The journey (literal) as he drives mirrors the emotional journey he is on: it’s an abyss with winding turns, with forces battering and opposing him.

You can learn a lot from studying that one paragraph.

The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt):

 It was just the kind of shop my mother would have liked—packed tightly, a bit dilapidated, with stacks of old books on the floor. But the gates were pulled down and the place was closed.

Most of the stores didn’t open until noon, or one. To kill some time I walked over to Greenwich Avenue, to the Elephant and Castle, a restaurant where my mother and I ate sometimes when we were downtown. But the instant I stepped in, I realized my mistake. The mismatched china elephants, even the ponytailed waitress in a black T-shirt who approached me, smiling: it was too overwhelming, I could see the corner table where my mother and I had eaten lunch the last time we were there, I had to mumble an excuse and back out the door.

I stood on the sidewalk, heart pounding. Pigeons flew low in the sooty sky. Greenwich Avenue was almost empty: a bleary male couple who looked like they’d been up fighting all night; a rumple-haired woman in a too-big turtleneck sweater, walking a dachshund toward Sixth Avenue. It was a little weird being in the Village on my own because it wasn’t a place where you saw many kids on the street on a weekend morning; it felt adult, sophisticated, slightly alcoholic. Everybody looked hung over or as if they had just rolled out of bed.

Tartt’s character, a young boy, has recently lost his mother in an explosion and he’s feeling displaced and sensitive. The moment he steps outside, the things he notice reflect his mood and create a sense of displacement for him, not just because of the locale he’s in but the memories it triggers, which trigger conflicted emotions.

 His Only Wife (Peace Adzo Medie):

 Eli came at 1:36 p.m. I knew the exact time because I was sitting and staring at the analog clock on my phone when the doorbell rang. The sound startled me and I dropped the phone; I hadn’t heard the lift stop and open on my floor. My mother rushed out of her room and mouthed “Go” while pointing to the door. I hesitated; for some silly reason I wanted to fish my phone from under the chair before I answered the door.

“Ah, open the door,” she said with sound this time.

I stood up and smoothed my dress over my hips. My armpits were moist; it was a good thing that the fabric was light and patterned so that my sweat stains would not be visible. My feet felt heavy so that I needed extra effort to lift them. I imagined that I looked like a marching soldier. The frown on my mother’s face told me that she was displeased. The bell rang a second time. She flashed her eyes as if they had the power to physically push me toward the door. My hand was so damp with sweat that it slipped off the round doorknob when I tried to turn it.

 Medie uses just a few well-placed and appropriate sensory details for a young character who is agitated and nervous. The character isn’t paying attention to the visual aspects of the room she is in; she’s aware of her body and the feeling of her skin, how heavy her feet feel, the sweat on her palm. These are the things she’s keenly aware of, along with the expression on her mother’s face. The character pays attention to what matters most in the moment.

The Dazzling Truth (Helen Cullen):

Murtagh opened the front door and flinched at a swarm of spitting raindrops. The blistering wind mocked the threadbare cotton of his pyjamas. He bent his head into the onslaught and pushed forward, dragging the heavy scarlet door behind him. The brass knocker clanged against the wood; he flinched, hoping it had not woken the children. Shivering, he picked a route in his slippers around the muddy puddles spreading across the cobblestoned pathway. Leaning over the wrought-iron gate that separated their own familial island from the winding lane of the island proper, he scanned the dark horizon for a glimpse of Maeve in the faraway glow of a streetlamp.

In the distance, the sea and sky had melted into one anthracite mist, each indiscernible from the other. Sheep huddled together for comfort in Peadar Óg’s field, the waterlogged green that bordered the Moones’ land to the right; the plaintive baying of the animals sounded mournful. Murtagh nodded at them.

There was no sight of Maeve.

This wonderful passage is packed full of inference. The choice of words sets a strong mood appropriate to the moment. Murtagh is looking for his wandering wife at night, anxious to find her.

Look at the choice of words (which is evidence of great microtension): flinched, spitting, blistering, threadbard, bent, pushed, dragging, shivering, muddly, melted, huddled, waterlogged, plaintive, mournful. All powerful, evocative verbs and adjectives that set the mood. All things the character notices for a reason. The only two sounds he hears is the brass knocker hitting the door (which is used to show that his children are asleep and his concern about them) and the animals baying in a mournful way (which reflects his emotions in that moment).

 The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame):

Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.

My all-time favorite children’s story that never fails to delight me every time I read or listen to it on audiobook. Grahame had a wonderful way of using sensory detail to paint the mood of the characters. Mole, coming out of his dark dirt hole in the spring, is introduced to the river, and his delight in what he sees is wonderfully expressed in metaphor, with the river behaving like an animal, wholly appropriate for the genre and audience he wrote for.

Take time to consider the purpose of your scene, what the character’s mood must be (which can and often does change as the scene progresses).

Carefully choose sensory detail your character would notice, colored by her mood in the moment. Make your sensory details purposeful so that they reveal important things about your character, the setting, the actions underway, and the point of your scene. If you do so, it will bring your scenes to life with a richness and depth that will take your writing to a higher level.

Featured Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

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