Monday Craft Tips: Use sensory details to make emotions more vivid

Do you remember this passage from last week? It comes from a short story called “The Chain” by Tobias Wolff:

He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backwards off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there. (1-2.)

Sledding2In subsequent sentences of this excerpt Wolff enacts emotion by piling on sensory details. The narrator’s overcoat “flapped” impeding his movement (2). Brian “screamed” causing his daughter to flinch. The dog grabs her anyway, but gets her shoulder instead of her face. Next we learn that “Gold was barely halfway down the hill.” His arms are pumping but his feet are “sliding in the boots”. He “seemed to be running in place, held as a fixed unbridgeable distance” as the dog finally drags Anna off the sled. All these details accrue to convey Brian’s panic and desperation, and they evoke a similar feeling of panic and desperation in the reader. By the time we get to the last sentence, we are so gripped by this scene that Wolff is allowed to get away with using the adjective “helplessly” partly because it’s rhythms convey Brian’s tumble down that hill to get to that dog.

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