1. It has a literal consequence. That is, it’s part of a cause-and-effect trajectory that relates to the plot.
For instance, it’s a blistering 97 degrees and so humid it’s hard to breathe, but if Roger, who loathes the heat, doesn’t leave his deliciously cool air conditioned office in the next five minutes and trudge across town, he’ll miss his son Rodney’s school play – again.
2. It gives us insight into the character, which consequently tells us something we need to know about him.
The impeccable crispness of Roger’s bespoke linen suit makes him feel as if he’s proved to everyone that he’s left his humble roots behind. The thought of that suit soaked with sweat and clinging to him like the cheap knockoffs his dad wore makes the thought of going outside almost more than he can bear.
3. It’s a metaphor, which intimates a deeper meaning.
Roger’s concern for his suit represents his fragile sense of self, and tells us that he has a lot to learn before the story ends.
4. It makes the world in which the story takes place in seem real
This brings us right back to the advice we began with: sensory details bring the story to life. But now we know the caveat: the goal is not to mimic the real world on the page. The real world is, after all, chock full of irrelevancies, chaos, confusion and the delightful vagaries of life. We get enough of that on our own, don’t you think? Stories let us slip out of the surface cacophony and into something just as real, but deeper. The goal of a story isn’t to tell us that something happened, it’s to show us why it happened. To do that you must filter out everything that’s irrelevant to what’s happening – like all those sensory details that don’t have anything to do with the story itself.
Does the reader need to be able to see and feel and experience the world of your story? Absolutely. Which is precisely why every sensory detail you choose must in some way give us insight into that world. After all, we all know what the world looks like, what we’re dying for is a glimpse of your world.
About the Author: Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and there’s nothing she loves more than working one-on-one with writers, helping them make sure the story they want to tell is actually there on the page. She can be found at wiredforstory.com.