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The Evocative Sense of Smell

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The Lightning Thief - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Courtesy of bn.com

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.

Description that Jumps off the Page

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The Midwife of Venice - Novel Conclusions - Description in Writing

Courtesy of bn.com

As writers, we always want to weave our description into the story just enough to make it vivid but not so much as to slow the story down.  While Dickens may have been able to get away with an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House, modern authors usually can’t get away with that and still sell books.

We frequently hear about including the senses in our writing, but we need to remember to include descriptors that have a purpose.  Does it create a mood?  Does it tell us something important about our characters?  Does it move the plot forward?  Is it important later in the story?  Maybe the image of a gorgeous orange leaf floating down to a pond captivates your imagination as an author, but does it make sense for the story you’re writing?  If your character is zipping by that leaf at 60 miles per hour on her way to a family member’s death bed, perhaps that’s not the moment for that particular image.

Roberta Rich sets the scene and the mood and drops us right in the midst of the story with the very beginning of The Midwife of Venice:

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice
1575

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice.  The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin.  Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters.  Through the mist rising from the canal, the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo.  Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

In less than a hundred words, we know these things:

  • It is an odd time; something must be wrong.
  • Hannah lives in the super ghetto.  Literally.
  • Something creepy is about to happen.

The author gave us all of this information without telling us directly.  She uses multiple senses to show us the environment, set the eerie mood, and drop hints that something is about to happen, all at a bridge that comes up in the story again and again.  She pulls the reader in.

What have you read recently where the description jumps off the page?  What do you think makes for good description?

Related Info:

  • Check out an in-depth review of The Midwife of Venice here.  Like the reviewer, I also think it’s pretty cool that the book shows both good and bad Jews, Christians, and Muslims — it’s not just one religion versus another.
  • Agent Nathan Bransford has a great post on showing vs. telling here and how “specificity wins.”

The Power of Revealing Details

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The Giver

Courtesy of bn.com

Correctly placed details can reveal more about a character, setting, or situation than paragraphs of exposition — showing versus telling.  In revision, it’s important for us to scour every scene, every paragraph for ways to show instead of tell.  Sometimes I find that, in the frenetic rush to get the story out, my first drafts tend to be lots of telling and need to be cleaned up pretty dramatically to show more instead.

In Lois Lowry‘s The Giver, Lowry builds a fantatstic new world in barely a chapter, and she’s able to accomplish this feat with her solid use of revealing detail, as in this passage in the first chapter:

Lily considered, and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  They acted like… like…”

“Animals?” Jonas suggested.  He laughed.

“That’s right,” Lily said, laughing too.  “Like animals.”

Neither child knew what the word meant, exactly, but it was often used to describe someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in.

Without telling us directly how different this society is, Lowry accomplishes this in just a few lines by showing an example of daily life without giving it to us in straight exposition.   The conversation and comment come across casually, almost as an aside, which also shows us something about the world of The Giver and the attitudes of those within it.

Whenever I revise, I try, though not always successfully, to cut as much exposition as I can without losing the thread of the story.  Which revision tricks do you use to clean up your fiction?

P.S.  Check out what the NY Times has to say about Lois Lowry’s new book Son here and how “in many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel.”

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