I can feel my writing student’s collective eye roll as I write this; “Show don’t’ tell, do a run through for passive writing. Mind your ‘ing and ly’ words. Where’s the smell, there are no smells in this scene.” And so on….
No matter what kind of story you are writing, memoir, short story, or novel, it’s vital to engage a reader’s senses. Precise and concrete details are essential to effective storytelling. The best way to achieve this is by appealing to the reader’s FIVE senses—smell, sight, sound, touch and taste—to FULLY illustrate a scene.
Trust me, if your character walks into a bar, takes the garbage out, goes fishing, is out nightclubbing or stumbles upon a dead body at sunrise, there is a provocative smell. That smell will bring the scene to life (or death) whichever….
A dead body at sunrise might have a sight that would be more seductive than a smell; it’s up to you the author to decide which of the senses best suits the suggestive nature of your scene. Use the strongest description sense for your specific scene. In one scene, smell might be the most evocative sense to go with, in another, sound, or sight, or touch.
I have a heightened sense of smell, so for me smells are powerful. I still recall my pinched face when I read author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s description of someone’s breath, “smelled like a burp after you’ve ate pork sausage for breakfast.” That still grosses me out. Palahniuk’s common use of words that summon olfactory responses is a perfect example of showing and not telling.
And if you’re story takes place prior to modern sewer systems you have all the many stenches of humanity—before regular bathing and with piss buckets on every corner—from which to draw. If your story is in New York or Beverly Hills, the smell of perfume can help a character sum up the financial worth of a woman—or a man—or lack thereof.
And who can forget, Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Smells can be story gateways; the smell of coffee may take them back to a fond memory, or the taste of ice cream may take them back to a nightmare.
Revealing your story through the senses helps the reader to not just read, but to experience your story on multiple levels. Can you recall a particular story for it’s use of the senses?
Take a pen and paper and (if you’re not on quarantine) go sit in a coffee shop or café (wear a mask) and write down the smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste of that environment. No story, just details. Do any details, like the above-mentioned smell of coffee, take you back to a memory. Write that memory. Keep that list of details for when you write scenes that may need to be brought to life.
For a complete list of words to use to describe smell, visit this site, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/75-words-that-describe-smells/
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