November 4th, 2009

The Language of Longing

The first question a novelist asks is WHAT DOES MY PROTAGONIST WANT? Lots of times it's the hardest question of all.

My former teacher Jane Resh Thomas was a master at probing a character's secret yearnings. She asks it this way-

What is your character's heart's desire? What is she dying for want of?

So what does your protagonist long for? And what does this have to do with sensory detail?

It's not enough for your character to say "I want a bike" or "I want to be popular" or "I want to be safe".  You as the novelist must show that longing in thought, word, and deed. You must reveal it in every gesture that character makes and in the essence of the world around him. How? Sensory detail.

Uh. Right. How does a character smell the desire to be popular?

Maybe she notices the popular girl's perfume, the smell of expensive leather boots... small sensations -- the jingle of car keys, the taste of a popular girl's favorite soda could remind her. But don't stop there. That's way too easy and way too obvious. How about the acid taste of bile that fills her mouth when the popular girl snubs her. How about the sound of silence when she finally turns the popular songs off her Ipod and goes back to reading a book she loved before she began her climb up the social ladder.

Sensory detail may be the most powerful tool in your writer's toolbox and the absence of a sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch is utterly


I hadn't considered the power of absence until I recently spoke with Vermont College student Kelly Barson.

Each month first and second semester students in the MFA program write critical essays on craft topics they face in their work. Kelly wrote an excellent essay on sensory detail. After she shared it with me I invited her to join us here in the Tollbooth to talk about what she learned.

Hi Kelly! Let's get right to business. Which novels did you look at when you were studying sensory detail?

I examined Deborah Wile's novel Each Little Bird That Sings. Of course I read many other novels but this one stood out.

I'm smiling a really big smile. Debbie is a VCFA grad and former faculty member. Most of all a good and true friend and a marvelous writer. I adore her work, too. What did you find?

Wiles successfully uses concrete sensory details not only as description, but also to illuminate character and engage the reader.  An example of this is when the main character, Comfort Snowberger, escapes the pre- funeral commotion following her great-great-aunt’s death: 

"Everything in Aunt Florentine’s room sounded slow and soft. The floorboards breathed a creaky breath. The mantel clock gave off a satisfying tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick sound  that made the wallpaper roses look like they might nod off to sleep. Specks of dust drifted in the sifts of dusky light that came through the window blinds. The dust had no one to land on anymore; Great-great-aunt Florentine was gone. I breathed softly in and out on the bed and felt the loneliness of everything." (70)

That's gorgeous. And WOW doesn't that convey Comfort's longing for her Great-aunt Florentine! What else did you find?

Wiles also uses sound to convey emotion. “I heard Dismay’s toenails tap-tap-tapping down the hallway, coming my way” (87). Throughout the story, Comfort notes that sound several times. She portrays it as a happy sound, but other than that, this detail does not seem to be significant until the dog disappears in a flash flood and Comfort notices the absence of the sound. “I still woke up in the morning listening for Dismay’s tap-tap-tapping down the hallway, coming to get me up. That hadn’t changed” (242). The author need not mention that Comfort misses her dog; it is revealed by the sensory image (or lack thereof). Referencing the sound brings to mind previous instances of the dog’s being there, so the reader is able to remember and feel the emptiness as well. In fact, it may even trigger the reader’s past emotions of losing a pet, of remembering and missing.

WOW! WOW! WOW! I have to tell you when you first pointed out how Debbie uses the absence of sound I was awe-struck. Even though I'd read Each Little Bird The Sings a dozen times I never thought about how removing a sensory image that means happiness and fullfillment hammers Comfort's misery home... and yes it made me think of pets and people I've lost. Debbie shows us Comfort's heart's desire-- what she's dying for the lack of-- by taking Dismay's click click click away. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it.

Sensory detail seems so simple doesn't it? A smell here, a sound there... but studying it with greater depth has given me new respect. And sharpened the most important tool in my toolbox. Thanks, Kelly!

Do you have a favorite sensory image-- something that wrenches your emotions? Tell me about it!

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