When I was a new writer, I wrote a short story that I was proud of. I gave it to a friend who wrote short stories to critique. He said he liked it, but that I needed to learn to use all my senses in writing. It was a story set in the 30s, and in it a young boy ran after his father’s horse and buggy at night to find out where he was going. My reader said he wanted to smell the dust as the boy ran after the buggy, he wanted to feel the grit of the dust in his nose and eyes, feel his heart beat speeding up as he ran, hear the squeak of the buggy wheels.
When I write now, I go back to that advice. My first draft is bare bones, letting the characters and the plot lead me to tell the story. When I go back to edit, I pause at each scene and ask myself how I can bring the scene alive with my senses. Is there something I can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel that will help the reader get closer to the characters? Is there something specific to that time or place? Is there smoke in the air? A storm brewing? Has someone been drinking, so another character smells the alcohol on his breath or clothing? Is someone dressed differently from the way he usually does—or from the way everyone else is dressed? Is there a sound present that warns that everything isn’t right?
A conversation or a narrative passage can only take the reader so far. Readers need something specific to ground them. Someone lies down on a bed and the springs squeak, or he groans after a long day, or the covers are too hot. Someone is driving and sees a car stopped by the side of the road, or a dilapidated house, or dead grass in a yard, or a car up on blocks. Every single thing you describe tells the reader where she is, how the place feels, how the characters fit into the scene. Or if a character doesn’t fit in, and why.
In everyday life, our senses work constantly to tell us details about what’s going on around us. If the reader doesn’t have these clues in a story, he doesn’t get the sense clues he needs, what dangers or joys might be in store. As a writer, it’s up to me to provide the clues readers use in their lives to help them understand the fullness of the story.