Writing Secrets: Don’t neglect the most evocative of the senses

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

When new writers are “using all their senses” to show us a person or landscape, they often neglect smell. And yet, it’s the most evocative of our sensory experiences.

Emotions and memories are intimately bound up with smells. Anyone who has suffered a profound loss will understand the urge to breathe in the clothing of the loved one. It brings back, just for a moment, a sense of their presence.

When I had small babies, I could sniff the top of their heads and, even with my eyes closed, I could pick out mine from any others.

All of this makes smell the perfect vehicle for “showing” characters and places to your reader.

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived,” observed Helen Keller, whose blindness made her acutely aware of the power of the nose. “The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”

Smells trigger both collective and personal memories and emotions. The smell of apples in a car instantly conjures my personal experience of childhood car-sickness. But many people will relate to the summertime smell of sea-salt and sunscreen on a hot arm. It will have personal variations, of course. For me, it smells of freedom and school holidays. For someone else, it might mean the sadness of a holiday romance gone wrong. But we can all relate in some way or another.

But don’t simply use smell in obvious ways – to conjure a coastal cave, say, or a filthy squat. Smell is intimately connected with emotion, so use it to create that connection for us. Do disinfected corridors smell of terror, for example?

Even if you don’t spell it out, we get the idea. Which of these men does she love? One smells of strawberries on a hot day, ripe and cool at the same time. The other has the sea-tang of dying sea urchins

I wonder if people avoid using scents because it’s not always easy to describe a smell. Well, sometimes you don’t need to. We all know what baking bread smells like, or the sea. You can also use images, if that will provide us with more vivid an impression – anything that will allow us to summon that smell to our imaginative minds. For example:

The room smelt like a forest floor, as though mushrooms and lichen pressed up against the floorboards, bursting to intrude.

These comparisons allow our minds to form patterns, which re-form what we are observing into something more familiar.

I once used smell to show that a character had fallen out of love with her husband: his smell changed.

Surely, when she had first met him, her husband had not held so very definite a smell about him. He seemed to exude something foreign – metal and machinery perhaps, or the working smell of tasks and industry.

Sometimes you don’t need to describe smell at all. You can be infinitely subtle and oblique in using it to show character. Here’s a lovely example from Elmore Leonard:

Dale was shaking his head, innocent. He said, “Man, I don’t know,” in a sigh, blowing out his breath, and Kathy turned her face away.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Good idea, but where’s the blood and guts?

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