Writing: Make Fiction Feel Believable With Sensory Details

Sensory details can make the unbelievable elements in your story feel real. The trick is making sure you, as the author, know how your make-believe elements feel to begin with.

In other words, sometimes this (below) is a necessary part of good writing:

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. (For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”) This week, we are taking a closer look at the second rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #2—Make Your Make-Believe Feel Believable. We will be discussing these four techniques:

  • Use of sensory details
  • Creating imperfection
  • Relying on character reactions
  • The use of make-believe in everyday life

Today, we will focus on the use of sensory details.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how to use sensory details to surround your make-believe elements with believable elements. In that post, we focused on using sensory details to describe things that were already believable and familiar to your reader. In this post, we will concentrate on using sensory details to describe your make-believe elements.

Sensory details are the most important tool you can use when it comes to suspending disbelief in your reader. If your reader can feel your world with all five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound), he will be much more likely to play along with you and pretend it’s real.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, this requires you to:

“Get into” your own world. This means you are going to have to use your imagination and play pretend like you did when you were five. I literally sit at my computer, close my eyes, and imagine myself in the world. (Yes, this looks very silly if I’m in a public coffee shop.)

“Get into” your characters’ heads. (If that sounds weird to you, tell yourself you are channeling your characters. It’s the same thing.) Put yourself directly in his, her, or its shoes and look at the world from your character’s point of view. What does your character hear? Taste? Feel? See? Smell? Believe it or not, I do this exercise for every scene I write no matter what genre I’m writing. For the purposes of this post, make sure to include sensory details on the foreign or make-believe items your reader will encounter. How does the breastplate feel on your character? What about chainmail? Is your steampunk character struggling with her corset? (I know mine does.) If you write horror and your character is buried alive, what sensory details will your character encounter that your reader might not be familiar with (and how can you use them to create horror)?

Put ample description into your make-believe elements, especially regarding how they work. Pretend you have a character who jumps on a skateboard that hovers in the air instead of using wheels. (Think of Back to the Future II.) Mentioning that you character uses such a skateboard is one thing. But think of how describing what your character felt when he uses the skateboard would affect your reader. What if you threw in things like the gentle movement when he first steps on it or how difficult it is to learn to turn? Do that, and your reader will be riding the skateboard with your character instead of watching your character ride it.

Use this concept for all your make-believe elements. How does that new contraption feel when it’s being used? Is that horseless carriage hard to steer? What really happens when Scotty beams your character up?

Try out real world examples that can help you describe your make-believe elements: Here are a few things I have done in order to help me better describe my make-believe elements:

  • Tried on chainmail & armor: My characters wear armor. I never have. Therefore, when someone from the SCA was kind enough to let me try on his armor and chainmail (see below), I jumped at the chance. Feeling these things help me better understand my characters.

  • Taken sword classes: Real swords are heavy and unwieldy. If my characters are fighting in battle, they are going to become fatigued. Knowing how a sword feels helps my writing.

  • Paid attention when riding on a speedboat: My characters are angels, and they fly. I need to know what the wind feels like on their faces, and at what speeds

A little real-world experimenting and putting yourself into your characters’ heads will also give you an added bonus: You will discover flaws and fixes in your make-believe elements. Here are a few things that I changed or added because I imagined myself in my character’s head or did some experimenting:

  • In A Prophecy Forgotten, my character, Gabriella, jumps into a river to save the boy she is guarding. My experiences with SCUBA diving helped me realize that she would drown in the river if she didn’t take her armor off first.
  • In the same book, my character, Davian, is drenched and freezing. An advance reader read the scene and asked, “Why don’t you have Davian wrap his wings himself he gets cold?” Hence, “He folded his wings around his body and leaned against Boronan, hoping to absorb some of the unicorn’s body heat before he slipped his breastplate back on.”
  • Again, in the same book, my character, Zephor, comes to an alarming realization. I figured goose bumps would affect more than just an angel’s skin, so I wrote this sentence: “The feathers in Zephor’s wings stood straight up and goose bumps ran down his arms and legs.”
  • This works with everyday description as well. I jog in the mornings, and it can be damp. When I finish jogging, I’m covered with sweat and dew. My character, Alexor, is riding a unicorn through mist. I wanted to make it feel real, so I added, “Every part of Alexor’s uniform felt damp, and beads of dew dripped off his helmet onto his nose.” I would not have known to do that unless I jogged through mist and put myself in Alexor’s head.

What to take from this: Use sensory details about your make-believe elements so your reader will not only buy into your make-believe, but also fell like he is part of the story instead of just watching it. Use your imagination to get into your world and your characters’ heads so you can pull out details you would otherwise ignore.

Mainstream Writers: Make sure to get into your characters’ heads in each scene in order to bring it alive for the reader and discover flaws and fixes in your story.

Speculative Writers: Take opportunities to get real world experience that relates to your make-believe elements. This will help you bring your story to life!

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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6 Responses to Writing: Make Fiction Feel Believable With Sensory Details

  1. Alisa Russell says:

    Lots of good ideas. Thanks for posting.


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