Kristina Stanley from Fictionary joins JoEllen Nordstrom to talk about the sense of smell.
Previously, we covered sense within the “setting” story element, and in the last chapter, we discussed the sense of sight. We covered sight first because it’s typically the most used sense in a story. However, we don’t want people to forget about the other senses, so now we will cover smell.
Learn how the sense of smell adds depth to a character in a story and how using it effectively can help improve your writing right now.
Implementing the sense of smell
Descriptions that are rich in smell bring the reader into your story.
The most obvious use of smell is to trigger a character’s memory, which can be good or bad.We all know that when we smell something, we go,
“Aww, remember when…” Smells can provoke an emotional response, which then reveals something about your character to the reader. The memory can be good or bad.
Now, here’s the interesting thing with story elements: they are most effective when they are used together. When you want to tell the reader a bit of backstory or jump into a flashback, smell is a great sense to use because the human brain ties scent so closely to memory. Readers are familiar with this because they’ve experienced similar reactions, so it comes across as very natural in your book.
You can use also smell to create tension. Conflicting smells, for example, can work against each other, such as the smell of a dead body mixed with a lover’s perfume. Now, think of the triggers there. Maybe he character thinks, Someone murdered this person, and maybe he’s my lover because I can smell their perfume.
Sense of smell pitfalls
You want to make sure that the smells you use are related to the plot or at least make it a little bit more interesting. Otherwise, they should be left out. Using unnecessary or irrelevant smells isn’t the only pitfall that writers can encounter when using this sense.
One of the most common mistakes that novice writers make is using a smell the reader isn’t familiar with. For example, they’ll use something very specific to an industry that not everybody would know about.
They’re trying to be a little fancy, but if the reader doesn’t understand what the smell is, then it’s meaningless to them. They can’t relate it to anything they know, which can take them out of the story. They think, What is this? Maybe I should Google it. Now they’re off on Google and not reading the book anymore.
If you need to use a smell that you think might not be very common, take the time to describe it and use it in a way that the reader can understand what it is.
Smells must also be described from the point of view of the characters and not through something they haven’t experienced. One useful technique to handle this is to compare one smell to another. For instance, you can say that something smells like something else: “the perfume smells like a rose.”
This is better than having no description at all.
You can also add themes. How strong is that smell? What type of smell is it at first? Is it plum? Is it cherry? What does the smell remind the character of? With that last question, you’re bringing it right back to the character again.
This is important because it can generate interesting emotional connections.
For example, a character might smell a pot of coffee percolating and have a flashback: “I’m instantly lying in bed at my grandmother’s house. It’s early morning, and I’m just waking up.” Such moments are very distinct and grab the reader’s attention.
We’re getting to the point where you really want to pay attention to how story elements are interacting with each other and not just on their own, so it’s important to keep track of how and where you’re using them. With smell, though, you can go two ways.
The first is to just use a check and say, “Yup, I used the sense of smell.” Then, when you’re done going through your scenes, you can look at all the senses together and see which ones you used, how you balanced them, and if you only used only one, a few, or all five.
The other thing you can do is list the smells to see if they are different from one another and enhance the scenes they are in. If you use the same smell over and over, like percolating coffee, try to think harder about what might trigger a flashback. And if your smells seem like they aren’t doing much, think about the emotions you want to create in the characters and the experience you want the reader to have.
So, go through your manuscript and check out the smells in all your scenes. And if you need automated/electronic help with that, of course, you can check Fictionary!