Can you smell a story?

Over the course of my writing year I’ve noticed that there is one element of desciption that I find really difficult but that I want to improve on: describing smells. When reading novels I always find that the brief inclusion of a sentence to indicate how things smell really adds to my imagining of the scene at hand. Smell appears strongly associated with memory: so much so that we can conjure up a long-forgotten moment of our lives jsut by getting a whiff of something familiar to that particular time.

I know that I am a very visual writer; I tend to describe what my characters can see, occasionally what they touch and more often what they might hear. I very rarely use either taste or smell effectively – I don’t mean in the practical sense of having characters eat and smell food. It’s those neglected moments of subtley that I mean. Walking past someone and breathing in the heavy, sweet smell of their sweat during a humid day. Entering a room that is fresh with the odour of cut grass that evokes summertime. Floudering down a slippery, dark staircase where you can taste the moistness of the air and smell the sharpness of wet earth. It’s these type of descriptions that conjure up not just an image, but rather a real, tangible place. If you can see, hear and touch it then we assume it must be plausible, but if you can also smell and taste the atmosphere, the reality it creates becomes embedded in our memories; when associated with these particular senses we become partipants instead of just spectators.

I’m discovering that the thing to be careful of, however, is finding an appropriate smell for the scene I am riting. Different people associate different memories with certain smells. While I might write of the strong texture of a smell that wraps itself around you, invading your nostrils and overwhelming your senses – the manner in which you approach it could depend on if that smell was the deep, dark scent of a rotting corpse – sweet with decay but heavy with an acrid odour of spoiled meat – or the comforting perfume of your favourite grandmother with flavours of lavender and the delicious undertone of cinammon.

Each smell evokes a different emotive response. But what happens if you mix these up – what happens if that initial whiff of grandma’s relaxing, warm odour is then over-powered by the pungent dark, dingy smell of that rotting meat that makes your stomach turn over? Do you instantly realise that grandma is dead? Do you go through that moment of emotive realisation more startlingly than you would have if I had just written: ‘you walked into grandma’s house, she didn’t respond to your usual call, you stepped into the living room and, there she was, lying on the sofa, dead.’ It appears that smell can make a big difference to creating a scene that draws readers in.

So, I’m going to try and monitor my writing and occasionally stop and wonder what this scene might smell like. What odours might be lingering in the air that I can weave into the narrative that will help me create the right atmosphere for my characters, and my reader?

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One response to “Can you smell a story?

  1. Smell and taste are the two I often neglect as well. The last story I wrote, I did a senses pass. I went through, found parts that would be a good place for smell or taste, and then added a little. Helped a lot I think.

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