One of the best ways to bring your fictional world to life is to use all five senses. Because each sense comes with its own unique strengths and challenges, today I’m starting into a new series to give smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound their due.
The trick with smells is that if you include too many you can burn your reader out the way you deaden your nose if you smell every candle in the Yankee Candle store. (Not that I’m admitting to having done that, but in case you were wondering, my favorite is the Buttercream.)
Three techniques can help you make the most of the smells you choose.
Connect the Smell to an Emotion
Smell can be one of the most powerful senses in your fiction because of its ability to evoke emotions. You probably associate certain smells with memories, people, or places. I hate the way the dentist office smells like burning hair. The smell comes from the singed protein of teeth being drilled, and I associate that smell with pain. If I’m stressed, the warm scent of a clean dog will calm me down because I associate it with the comfort I find in my Great Dane when I throw my arms around her after a hard day.
Think about your own life and what smells evoke memories and emotions. Why do they have that effect on you? You don’t need to duplicate that precise smell in your fiction (you should find one that belongs organically to your character), but by paying attention to how smells intertwine throughout your life, you can learn how to build them into your stories.
If you’re struggling with how to naturally slide in necessary backstory, smell can be your saving grace. As Roni Loren recently pointed out in her post on How to Dish Out Backstory in Digestible Bites, something needs to trigger a memory in order to introduce backstory. Because of how memories cling to scents, smells work as a perfect trigger.
Choose One “Showpiece” Scent
In Ted Dekker’s The Boneman’s Daughter, the serial killer is addicted to Noxzema. I think about it every time I wash my face. That’s the staying power of giving a single scent a starring role.
This isn’t just for fiction writers. For non-fiction writers, you can create the same lasting memory by finding the one key smell to grab your readers. It could be the difference between a forgettable article or chapter in your book and motivating your readers to act. Are you writing a parenting book? What smell defines motherhood for you? How did that smell grow and change with your child? Differ between sickness and health?
Even though you’ll have other scents in your book, weaving one key smell throughout, changing it, playing off of it in moments of tension, ties your entire story together and imprints it on your reader’s mind. The next time they smell that scent in the world, they’ll think of your book.
Contrast a Good Smell with a Bad One
Choosing two antagonistic scents can be done simply to make both smells stand out more than they would on their own, complement a theme, or subtly support what’s happening inside your character.
In my co-written historical fantasy, our main male character is torn between the desire to sleep with his new female slave and the desire to obey his new God who forbids it. He commands her to strip off her tunic, and when she does, the scent of sweat and cypress invades his nostrils. The opposing scents mirror the struggle between his opposing desires.
In The Hunger Games trilogy, President Snow smells like blood and roses. He uses the roses to cover up the fact that his breath reeks of blood, and this becomes a metaphor in a way for how the beauty and glitz of the capital tries to disguise the repulsiveness of the country’s situation. Suzanne Collins could have just had him smell like blood, but the contrast with something as beautiful and symbolic as roses made the smell of blood that much more grotesque. And Katniss is never able to think about roses the same way again.
What smell brings back a strong emotion for you, either good or bad?
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