Writers talk a lot about using the five senses. But how much thought have you given specifically to the sense of smell in writing? Not just for description but developing character and worldbuilding and…
I once read an interview with director Ridley Scott, whose second film–a little number called Alien had just been released. In it, he mentioned how frustrated he was that there was no way to convey the title creature’s smell. He felt that it would have been a fundamental part of its presence, and if you’ve seen the film (or any of its sequels) you know he’s probably right. Anything that drips that much goo must be rank.
His observation stuck with me, because in all the monster movies I watched, in all the SF and fantasy books I read, the sense of smell was very seldom invoked. But plenty of research shows that smell is the sense most directly linked to memory, which is why a certain odor can make us recollect things in such vivid detail.
Use the Sense of Smell in Writing to Bring Scenes to Life
For fantasy, SF and horror writers, odor is an often overlooked way to bring a scene to life. In stories with contemporary settings, it can signal the presence of the unusual, from a dead body to an aroused incubus. In imagined surroundings, it can be a way to connect the reader with the made-up world by invoking something with which the reader can identify (i.e., we may not know what a unicorn’s droppings smell like, but if a character tells us they smell like apple blossoms, we can make the comparison ourselves).
Use the Sense of Smell in Writing to Develop Character
Also, the way a character reacts to a given smell tells us a lot about him or her, and that’s especially true when those odors don’t exist in the real world. A vampire hunter might acknowledge the loamy smell of a revenant’s grave as a sign he’s close to his quarry, while a former victim might throw up at the same scent. In otherworldly settings, it’s especially important to remember this dimension, because odors are created by ongoing processes; without them, your fantasy world may be as inert and lifeless as a storybook illustration.
The Sense of Smell in Writing, Revision Pass
I try to always make what I refer to as a “smell pass” toward the end of my revision process, looking for places where something might create a scent. In each case, though, I filter these olfactory elements through the personality of the character behind the nose. In the faux-medieval world of my Eddie LaCrosse novels, the odors of manure, crops and mud would not be worth mentioning, but the scent of blood would definitely get his attention. Conversely, the protagonist of Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood is more sensitive to the odors of industry and the “modern” age of the 1970s, since they’re all new to him.
Heroes can even use their olfactory sense as their primary ability. My friend Margaret Ronald writes an urban fantasy series about a witch whose primary tool is her sense of smell. The first two books, Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, are available now.
(BTW, in case you wondered, the title quote is my second-favorite line from Ghostbusters. My favorite: “No human being would stack books like this.”)
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Excellent post. This is definitely my weak spot. I never seem to want to write smells and it’s such a strong tool for writing. The advice about using smell to connect the world to the reader is great. Thanks for the smelly insight :o)
I’ve thought about this when watching cooking shows too. There’s a reality show where they train people to be cooking show hosts and they make a big deal about relaying both taste and smell to the viewer. It always strikes a chord with me. 🙂
Yay, Alex is back! 🙂 Great post, and a good reminder to use all the senses, especially this one – very powerful, and often over-looked.