I’ve been reworking a short fiction story for the past two weeks and though I really liked the idea, and was growing increasingly fond of many of the sentences and some of the full-length scenes, I could tell the story wasn’t really popping off the page. If I were being honest with myself, I knew it was a little flat. I kept adding more and more description, attempting to make the settings and characters come alive through elaborate imagery. But depending so heavily upon sight was leading to some clunky, wordy, never-ending paragraphs. According to “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?,” by Jill McCabe Johnson over on the Brevity blog, my writing didn’t stink enough. The solution to limp prose? Make it stink to high heaven.
Smell, according to Johnson, is a powerful writing tool:
Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores . . . Smell . . . has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know.
It’s such a simple thing, but upon reviewing several samples of my writing, I realized that I rarely include scents.
You might not realize it, but most of your favorite books snuck in some distinctive odors. Take Harry Potter, for example. The Amortentia potion wouldn’t mean much if, to Hermoine, it didn’t smell like “freshly mown grass and new parchment and–” something else associated with Ron. Maybe smell is the secret ingredient used by the great and the published?
And though this other fabulous blog post by Sammy, “Writing in Style, or Style in Writing,” over at Stet That returns to the sense of sight, it reminded me how important it is–and how non-verbally descriptive it can be of both the character and the situation–to shine a brief spotlight on their choice of wardrobe. As Sammy wisely puts it, “black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement.”
With both those suggestions in mind, I added the scent of burnt coffee and some cheap foam flip flops and–I know this might sound cliché–my story suddenly had new depth to it. Just by adding a detail about one of my character’s five senses, it led me to write more details about other senses, and even led to some more character motivation:
Original prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car to follow him into the building. In the waiting room, Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.
New, invigorated, smelly, and well-dressed prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car. The heat of the summer-soft tar seeped through her foam flip-flops, burning her feet, and she scurried through the parking lot like she was escaping a runway of hot coals. The faint smell of burnt coffee greeted her, and the smell grew stronger when she walked into the waiting room. Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.
I know that there was a lot more rewriting and development in the second example than the strict insertion of (some of) the five senses, but by integrating touch and smell, the details led to more details and really fleshed out the moment. Personally, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s developing.
Now your turn. Will your writing pass the “Does My Writing Stink?” Test?
Randomly select ten pages of your own writing, and count the number of times you’ve referenced odors. Award yourself one nifty Nose for every reference to odor, then use the scale below to rank yourself among your fellow writers. Note: references in your writing to freshly baked bread, cut grass, flowers, or ground coffee count as only half a Nose. [Click here to find out what your score means.]
Speaking more broadly about all the senses, I think having 3/5 senses (or include the sixth sense, if you prefer) per page is a solid win. In my opinion, though, 5/5 might be a sensory overload for the reader. I say this because, unless your character is a chef, you can’t have them tasting something every scene, your characters can’t constantly be groping things to describe their texture, and you don’t want to overdose on the odors. Do you agree or disagree? What’s the perfect balance?
What are some of your favorite sensory-satisfying scenes? And what do they score?