All writers have heard the admonition, “Show, don’t tell.” And though I have argued that good nonfiction requires a “show AND tell” mentality, the idea that readers are more engaged when we offer concrete, sensory details on which to hang their imaginations holds true. To a point.
And that is exactly the point of Melissa Donovan’s well-written article, The Myth of All-You-Can-Eat Sensory Details. As Donovan points out, you can have too much of a good thing — kind of like eating too much chocolate right after a rich dinner (burp). Or perhaps too much is never a good thing.
As the author so eloquently points out,
Every second our five senses are lobbing 11,000,000 bits of information at us — those bits are sensory details. Yet our brain knows that we need to be shielded from at least 10,999,960 of them, lest we be so overwhelmed we shut down altogether. Thus the only details it lets through are the ones with the potential to affect us in the moment. In other words, we only become aware of the sensory details that might have an actual consequence.
We shut out what we don’t need to know. Therefore, if sensory details aren’t actually relevant to the action (plot), characters, or meaning of your story, they will cause your readers to get glassy-eyed and pass out from lyric prose overdose. And that’s the last thing you want.
Bottom line? Every word matters. I often challenge my students (and myself) by asking, “Why did you choose to include this (pick one: scene, sentence, detail) in your piece? If you can’t articulate why it’s important to include, then cut it. It’s that simple.
Whether the lovely lady’s perfume reminds the protagonist of roses or violets only matters if that bit of detail affects the story in some way.
But don’t worry too much about it when you’re in the first-draft-get-all-the-words-on-the-page phase of the creative process. Get that first draft written. Then—in the revision phase—decide which details stay and which get the cut.
What’s your take on this subject?