Ask the Editor: Vivid Prose and the Five Senses
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at creating prose that will appeal to readers.Dear Editor: People tell me my prose is drab and colorless. Any suggestions?
One great way to liven up your prose is to wake up your readers’ five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Tell the reader about your character’s twinkling violet eyes, the eerie whistle of the distant freight train, the scent of the cinnamon buns baking in the oven, the feel of the lush velvet cushion, the taste of those cinnamon buns.
Take a look at these two sentences from Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: “Reversing directions, they confronted wild celebration in the western sky: streaks of gaudy pink like the delayed aftermath of a fireworks show. The sand was pink, too, as if it had absorbed the sunset and was releasing it slowly.” And Richard Ford, in describing a beach scene in Independence Day says, ”Tiny, stick-figure boys stand, bare-chested at the margins of the small surf, shading their eyes as dogs trot by, tanned joggers jog and elderlies in pastel garb stroll behind them in the fractured light. Here is human hum in the barely moving air and surf-sigh, the low scrim of radio notes and water subsiding over words spoken in whispers.”
Writing with this ease and control and sensitivity to your senses is not easy at first. You have to teach yourself to be alert to all the details of what’s happening around you. What does the street look like after the rain? What are your friends wearing at dinner? How does the new car smell? How does the baby lamb feel in your arms? Keep a notebook and every time a sensual impression takes your breath away, jot it down. Pay attention to the colors around you, how things look, taste, and feel, and you will be well on your way to writing more colorful, engaging prose. But don’t overdo it: you want lively, visual prose, not purple prose.