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The Evocative Sense of Smell

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The Lightning Thief - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

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Writers frequently overlook the sense of smell to focus primarily on sight.  Smell, however, packs a much tighter emotional punch; our sense of smell is associated very closely with the part of the brain that processes emotion.  Aroma, fragrance, odor — whatever you’d like to call it — can frequently unlock memories and associations for both your characters and your readers, if used with finesse.

Where some authors skip over the most emotional of our five senses, some use it to great effect.  Vastly different writing styles can use the sense of smell to set the stage, reveal character, or move the plot forward.  Within the first few paragraphs of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood incorporates scent to set the scene in an old, empty gymnasium:

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls.

Atwood creates a feeling and uses this feeling to build curiosity.  Where exactly is the narrator, and why is she here?  We as readers want to know why we are here and where we are going, and in creating that curiosity, Atwood achieves an enviable goal.

Another example of scent working for a story comes up in a completely different book — but also a book that I love — The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Riordan uses scent to build the character of Percy’s step-father, Gabe:

I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn’t my room.  During school months, it was Gabe’s “study.”  He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.

I dropped my suitcase on the bed.  Home sweet home.

Gabe’s smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady’s shears snipping the yarn.

Riordan gives us a feel for Gabe’s character and tells us something that will be very important to the plot later (though I won’t spoil it for you by revealing that bit).  Gabe acts as a foil to Percy and his mother, Sally, showing us more about Percy and Sally purely through their reactions to him and interactions with him.

However, in order to use scent efficiently, we can’t just toss on a few extra olfactory descriptors.  The use of scent needs to pull its weight within the story.  Does your use of scent in your writing pull its weight?  Does it reveal character, plot, or important background information?  Does it create curiosity or build an important feeling?  If it doesn’t do these things, maybe it doesn’t belong there.

Have you read anything where the sense of smell stands out or plays an important role?  Which scents bring back memories for you?

P.S.  Check out a fun interview of Rick Riordan from Saturday’s Guardian here.

About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

9 responses

  1. I am enamoured of scents in writing! I used them somewhat in the novel I just wrote for NaNoWriMo, but your post has encouraged me to explore them on a deeper level. Thank you! 🙂

  2. I’m currently reading “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” and smell factors in several times. Unfortunately in an unpleasant way with all the references to the rotted food and unbathed bodies of the sailers on the 19th century ship off the coast of Japan. 🙂

  3. My daughter LOVED the Rick Riordan books. Right now, the smell of a fresh-cut xmas tree is bringing back many memories.

  4. Great reminder — I’m in the middle of editing and adding sensory descriptions where they fit. Thanks!

  5. Smell is probably more powerful as a memory than sights or sounds. I can conquer up childhood memories easily with scent. Such as the smell of the nun’s habits from my first school and the Brut my father used to wear. In my writing I try to use scent as well as the other senses to draw my reader in and imagine the scene in a clearer, defined way.
    Great post thanks

  6. Yes. The sense of smell is truly powerful for readers. I love Rick Riordan’s works and I can realistically imagine myself in Percy’s place or any other characters when they’re faced by a monster because Rick narrates just how the monster would smell like. And by the way, this is really a great post. 🙂

  7. Awesome post- interesting to think about! Smell is so important in descriptions. Thanks!

  8. Interesting! Lately, after shopping for perfume for my daughter for Christmas, I’ve become enamored with scent too–and have been working on a blog post about it. I probably don’t use it enought in my fiction writing, but imagine I’ll be doing more of that now.

  9. Excellent. We all need to use our senses more in writing, but as you suggest, we must be careful. There is a purpose for every word. I loved the shears “snipping.” I “heard” it because of the word choice. If he had said the “shears cutting,” it would not have had the same effect. So it’s not just the senses, but the word choices that wrap us into the story’s folds.

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