The five cornerstones of writing are who, what, where, when, and why. Every story, short or long, must answer those questions. Omit one and the story fails to satisfy. Address only those five questions and the story will have bones, but no heart. Heart comes from drawing the reader in and making them care. If your reader sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches your scenes and story elements, they become an active participant. It’s what encourages them to turn the pages until the end.
Taped to the flat of my laptop are two post-it-notes. One has passwords for frequently visited sites, the other reads: Sensory Elements. That one is written in red caps. When I first began writing, I was so busy telling the story that I forgot to let the reader experience the story. This reminder post-it-note has gone from laptop to laptop until it’s nearly worn thin. I’m not sure I need it anymore, but writers are a superstitious crowd. I’m petrified I’ll neglect the obvious if I dispose of it.
The mantra of add sensory elements has followed me for so long that I’d forgotten when and where I happened upon it. A recent post by Kate Flora on Maine Crime Writers reminded me. I’d read her original teaching post a number of years ago and attempted all of the exercises. The hardest, and most valuable, for me was describing something five ways each time using only one of the five senses. Now, when I have a scene that seems flat, I consider the five senses and seek one sensory element that sets the scene apart.
My characters live in the Florida Keys. Heat bakes skin, breezes bring tangy whiffs of salt and seaweed, rain pounds and bounces from the pavement striking the skin like tiny knives, lightning smells of ozone and raises fine hairs on the body, fall morning air has the taste of a hearty burgundy wine, sand crunches underfoot, the noon sky darkens to midnight black in advance of an approaching storm. These descriptions help the reader participate in the story, and hopefully whet the appetite for more after the current tale ends.
Readers and writers, what brings you into a story and makes you want more?