Sensory Detail vs. Small Action

Recently I learned the difference between sensory detail and small action. And that statement makes me a little sad since I am in the process of writing a series of books. (Meaning, I should already know this.)

When asked about sensory detail I thought, “Of course I have plenty of detail.” Then I reviewed my manuscript again, only to find I had no idea what I was talking about.  To put it out there, sensory detail is defined by as “sensory details are ways of describing things using the 5 senses.”

I’ve italicized an example from Call Me Emily below:

The morning light was orange and yellow as it cast through the trees and onto the sidewalk.  As I ran, I watched sunlight dance across my feet as I tried to keep the pace and avoid the expansion joints in the sidewalk. I know, it’s a little obsessive compulsive, but it’s a fun game  to keep my mind off the fatigue of running.  Making a turn to go up the hill, I spotted another apartment complex I hadn’t seen before; or was it condos? I couldn’t really tell because everything kind of looks the same around here: beige stucco buildings with white molded trim. The fresh cut grass and the sound of  Rainbird sprinklers ticking was a nice addition to my run. I looped around and followed the sidewalk back to my apartment complex. The sun was further up in the sky now, and  streams of light were beginning to warm up. Yep: it was going to be another hot day.

This paragraph has quite a bit of description to bring the reader on that run with Emily,  but it’s the scents and sounds that pull it together. See? Sensory details rule!


Small action is just that; action that is small. It doesn’t contribute to the story but instead slows the reader down. It’s bad and you don’t need it (to keep it simple.)  See the passage from Call Me Emily below:

“Where’s the bookstore?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s in the next building. I can show you after pictures if you want.”

“Sure, that would be great.” When I got to the front of the line I handed the photographer my paperwork.

“Emily Parker,” he said reading it aloud. “OK dear, have a seat.”

I didn’t say anything and tried my best smile. I knew it wouldn’t look great since none of the muscles in my face would relax at all. Whatever.

The card went into the laminator and popped out the other side with a loud thump. I picked it up as the photographer handed my paperwork back to me. I was, officially a college student. What a trip. I waited for Allison as she went through the same routine, then we headed out of the library to the bookstore.

Allison led the way to the bookstore. We went out of the library, down the ramp that led right to the bookstore. From the outside it looked the same age as the library but had wood siding instead of stone. It was far more rustic and smaller. We walked up the steps, went inside, and were immediately surrounded by the buzz of voices and cash registers.

You see the repetitive and unnecessary nature of the last paragraph? Good, because I didn’t. This is why I read things many times and sweet friends and family point out potentially disastrous bad habits.

Isn’t learning a wonderful thing?

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