Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 5

As far as I’m concerned, there’s one more important instance where choosing the right words can make all the difference. Sensory details can really bring a piece of prose to life.

Why is appealing to the senses so powerful? Because they are how we experience and interpret the real, 3-D word we encounter every day. Sights, sounds, and especially smells can instantly transport our minds to a place, an event from 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. It can enliven and enrich a new experience or something we read in a book. Here are a few of my favorite examples. They happen to be from adult books.

From Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
“Sound preceded sight. Odor preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming musky-barnyard, humanlike scent. [Then we heard] a high-pitched series of screams followed by a rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chestbeats . . . The three of us froze until the echoes of the screams and chestbeats faded. Only then did we creep forward under the cover of the dense shrubbery to about 50 feet from the group. Peeking through the vegetation, we could [see] . . . furry-headed [gorillas] peering back at us.”

From The Outermost House by Henry Beston
“I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly plowed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, . . . the morning perfumes of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows on summer afternoons.”

See how these sensory details allow you to draw on your past experiences, and in so doing help take you to the place and event the author is describing? How do you think you or your students can work sensory details into a work-in-progress?

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