This something I talk a lot about when I teach my fiction writing classes, especially when we get to world-building, but I think it might be important to discuss what I consider to be the difference between texture and description before we get too deep into this.
Texture is description, but description is not always texture. That’s the very basic difference here. Texture goes beyond what something looks like to focus on what does it feel like.
Texture is a subset of description that ties back to the greater world-building and adds vibrancy and life to your story that basic description does not. It’s also a sustained effort throughout a scene or work. We create texture by utilizing sensory detail strategically, especially by evoking a sensory triad. A sensory triad is when you pull in three out of the five senses in short succession, so within a sentence or two. What this does if done well is to activate different parts of your reader’s brain by evoking multiple senses at once, which creates a more immersive sensory experience.
Now, you can’t just mention a smell, a texture, and something you hear without using descriptions or adjectives that are specific or it won’t be evocative enough to do much. In my classes, I refer to these specific, evocative words as gourmet words because they’re often a little fancier than your run of the mill adjectives. Some examples are things like: briny, scaly, herbaceous, plunk (onomatopoeia is incredibly evocative), marbled, peppery, honeyed, etc. These don’t necessarily need to be complex words, just evocative or specific. An example of a sensory triad being used to set a scene might be something like this:
When he first arrived at the hibachi place, James had enjoyed the soothing pluck of the zither music they piped over the speakers, but as more diners came in, he could barely think over the clatter of plates and the excited whoops from the party at the grill behind him where an onion tower roared into a tiny volcano. Rubbing his temples and squinting at the menu in the near dark, he decided not to order anything with onions; the sharp, charred smell from the other table was churning his stomach.
So I whipped up this little paragraph on the fly, but let’s take a look at the evocative bits. Hibachi is specific, and if you’ve ever been, there’s an immediate image, but if there’s not we have further description of the feel of being in the restaurant. First, we have the “soothing pluck of the zither.” Even if you’ve never heard a zither, we can assume it’s a string instrument. “Excited whoops” is a specific type of exclamation, the use of “roar” with a small onion inferno is another good noise verb. Then, we get to rubbing his temples, which is, to me, a sensory thing. It’s a self-soothing pressure. “Squinting…in the near dark” gives us the action of seeing/holding your face in a specific way and how dim the restaurant is. And finally, we add in the “sharp, charred smell” of onions churning his stomach. I’d also argue that churning works as a sensory detail because it’s very visceral, and most of us know exactly what they feels like.
Now, what you might notice is the lack of specific visuals. I could have spent time on the dark wood tables or the koi motif on the scrolls hanging from the walls. More than likely, I would have included that at some point in my description, but visuals are often the least interesting but most relied upon sense. Do we need to describe a setting? Absolutely, but when adding texture, you need to make sure that you are branching out beyond just decor. I specifically refer to it in my classes as texture because it is something you should feel, not just see. In order to establish an important setting, you have to get the sensory experiences going. The other visuals can be peppered in later or throughout the scene instead of clumping them all together. Readers are more likely to skim a paragraph delineating the decor than a sensory experience worked into action or thoughts.
The best way to create texture is to work with the idea of unity of effect. Now, this goes back to Edgar Allan Poe writing about short stories, but I’m going to co-opt the idea of unity of effect because writing a novel or longer work still requires that unity in order to create texture. This extends to a unified world in your story through cohesive world-building. This shouldn’t be mistaken for homogeneity because you can have a unified world made of many different parts. Take New York City for example. I can stand on a street and smell pizza, chicken wings, and truffle butter all from the same spot. What would hammer home the unity of New York’s texture would be things like brief mentions of taxi yellow, screens playing ads, the jostle of crowds, the smell of halal or hot dog carts. If you keep touching base with these sensory experiences, your reader remains in that moment and reconnects with descriptions you have mentioned earlier.
You don’t need to be super heavy-handed with this either. A solid sensory foundation can be reawakened by brief touches in later descriptions, or they can be complicated and even thwarted, depending on the scene. An example of this might be describing New York City at winter time when it’s super crowded, then stepping into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The soaring space within the cathedral and the quiet of being inside a church immediately changes the tone. That sensory experience whiplash as you establish this opposing texture can be really powerful in creating interesting, visceral detail.
There are also some less obvious ways of adding texture that rely more heavily on world-building than on individual sensory descriptions, such as focusing on:
- Fabrics/materials- what fabrics are being used in this world. Is it silk? Barkcloth? Brocade? Denim? All of these fabrics have very different textures, histories, uses, and connotations. Integrating fabrics in clothing and building materials or decorative arts is a great way to add vibrancy, and it also speaks to the world-building. At the same time, be careful that you aren’t choosing these as window dressing and that they make sense within the world itself.
- Colors/pigments- I feel like I’m rehashing Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book topics, but the use of color can be a fantastic unifying force in regards to texture. We see this a lot in movies (looking at you, Wes Anderson), so think of it in a similar manner with your stories. You may also want to delve into the meanings of colors to your characters’ society, how they represent (or don’t represent) class, and even within decorations or buildings, how does paint or color create mood?
- Food- I love a good food description. If your writing a fantasy food or something you think readers may not be super familiar with, remember that you don’t have to spoon-feed them what it is. Give them the general feel of the food’s taste (spicy, peppery, sweet, etc.), a hint as to what it’s made of (a flaky crust, tender meat, creamy corn), and you’re good. Food is a great way to add a bit of color, smell, and texture into a scene and to ground your reader in sensory detail (and make them hungry).
- The weather- If the Regency and Victorian periods did one thing right, it was creating a mood with weather. Think about how the weather can add texture to your story through sensory detail. The beating sun warming a character’s back, the spray of ice stabbing their cheeks like needles, a warm spring breeze as they sway in a hammock. Combining the spring breeze with the drone of bees in the garden beside them and the gentle sway of the hammock as their food skims the grass is a great combination of detail.
- Gross things- I didn’t really know what to call this category, but gross things felt appropriate. Nothing is more viscerally evocative than something that is disgusting or unpleasant. The slimy grip of algae catching your foot in the water or the sulfurous punch of opening a tupperware that has been in the refrigerator too long is not something one forgets, which means it is very easy to evoke those senses.
The worst thing when creating texture is that you don’t always know what something specific smells or tastes or feels like. If it’s a fantasy setting, I would say do your best to imagine it and try to compare it to things your audience would recognize. If it’s a real world thing, then do your homework. When writing Kinship and Kindness, I googled, “What does the bayou smell like?” I had smelled swamps in NJ, we have plenty of marshes, and they’re quite pungent in summer or after a heavy rain, but it does vary. Luckily, we have the internet and most people are very willing to describe things for you. Actual in person research is best but not always feasible, so do your best with what you have and don’t be afraid to ask people if a description makes sense. Also, keep in mind that we all experience smells, tastes, and textures differently, so what smells wonderful to one person is offensive to another. That experience can often be fun to play with.
I hope this helps you integrate texture more into your work in the future. And always remember that after your first draft is a great place to go back and flesh out your settings/experiences.
Happy writing, peeps, and let me know what you think in the comments.