Did you ever notice that unless something smells especially good or particularly offensive, we tend to ignore it?
Because our sense of sight and hearing are dominant we tend to ignore every day smells. We see the trees, hear the traffic, and look into each other’s eyes as we speak.
But we take our other senses, touch, taste, and smell for granted. We often ignore them. Oh sure, we feel, taste and smell, but not with a lot of awareness. While the smell of bacon makes our mouth water, and we may say it smells good, or that it’s making us hungry, we don’t elaborate on it. On the other hand if we smell something offensive, say askunk, we go on and on about the distasteful odor. Same thing with taste.
The bacon and egg tastes good, and we enjoy them, but we expect to enjoy them so we don’t say much about them. On the
other hand, the sour taste of vinegar or a lemon has us spitting and complaining about the acrid flavor.
The same applies to our sense of touch. We feel something soft or silky, it’s comforting, and we might make an off-handed remark. But, if we burn, cut, or hurt ourselves, we complain and make a big deal about the pain.
But in writing all of these senses are as important as sight and sound. We describe the setting, the background. But by using all of our senses we bring our stories to life. We can go from the real world to a new world of make believe. But we also need to make our story realistic. In both fiction and nonfiction, a richly described setting will pull your readers out of the real world of pressure and tension and into your world of make believe. So we can’t ignore these senses in our descriptions?
We need to become more aware of these senses in our everyday world? Go outside, look around you - listen to the sounds. Close your eyes. Inhale deeply, breath in the odors. What do you smell? The flowers, exhausts from cars, it depends where you are. You can do the same wherever you go. Walk into a department store at a mall. Inhale the scents. What do you smell, the lingering scent of someone’s perfume or the perfume counter, if a smoker walks past you, you detect the odor of cigarette smoke. At a movie it will probably be the smell of popcorn. Restaurants have many smells, garlic, onions, rich sauces or maybe coffee. Remember these smells. Use them in your writing.
Next time you eat, savor the food. Hold it in your mouth, relish the experience and texture of bread and the slight aroma of yeast. Feel the surface of the tabletop or tablecloth. Ingrain them into your memory.
Use these senses in the story. Let your reader hear, see, feel, smell and taste the story. The story and characters will come alive through these senses. It’s not enough to tell us what something looks like. SHOW US!! We want to feel it, smell it, and maybe even taste it. Readers won’t notice that you included them, but they will notice if you omit them. Without them, your world will be flat, boring, and unrealistic.
No, you don’t have to add them to every sentence or even every scene. Maybe your characters are in a situation where they don’t notice smells or textures and there’s nothing to taste. That’s often true of tense scenes. If someone is attacking you, you certainly aren’t going to notice the sweet smell of roses. On the other hand you might notice the offensive odor of his sweat. And you’ll certainly feel the beads of perspiration on your own forehead or the taste the nausea building up from your throat to your mouth.
Other times we might be deep in thought and won’t even notice our surroundings. That’s fine, but make sure to include them when they are needed. If your characters walk into a restaurant, we want to know what they smell as well as what they see and hear. Too often, as beginners these senses are ignored.
Remember also, that some odors will smell different to different people. Some smells are “Universal”. Dog poop and the smell of garbage are offensive to everyone. Flowers, freshly cut grass or fresh baked bread usually evoke memories. We can all picture a garden, or remember the first spring mowing and of course Mom or Grandma in the kitchen baking. Use these scenes to help show us the scene or bring out an emotion of our characters. Some smells scents are less universal. Cauliflower will smell differently to me than you. If the reader loves it and you hate it, the scene will be all wrong. What you want to make sound delicious might make your reader go yuck and you’ll have lost the realism. Stick to the universal smells.
Pick up your favorite novel. Go through it page by page. Highlight the senses with different colors. What an amazing array of colors on the pages. No, you might not see all the colors on every page, but enough to make it colorful.
So how do we use these senses in our scenes?
Imagine your character on a beach by the ocean. Put yourself there. Close your eyes. Picture it. What do you hear? Are the seagulls squawking, children playing? Can you hear the swish of the waves? Let’s take it further. Inhale, take a deep breath. What do you
How much stronger your words will be describing these feelings and tastes as well as the sights and sounds through your characters. Your story and characters will become more alive.
The senses are as important to non-fiction, as they are critical to fiction.
If you’re writing a how to article about baking bread, the reader needs to know that they should knead the dough until it blisters for a better, lighter loaf, and that it should be smooth to the touch. No the smell of the yeast is not important. Some things are not important in non-fiction, but if you are writing a nostalgic piece about the memory of Mom or Grandma baking in the kitchen, add those senses. They’re an integral part of the article.
Start today, right now - observe these senses in everyday life. Pay particular attention to the feel, smell, and taste. Sometimes you can taste something just from the odor. Have you ever experienced a particularly bad odor? It smelled so bad you could almost taste it.
Remember these senses. Concentrate on the feel of the smoothness of a baby’s skin or the texture of your sheets, vegetables, everything you touch. Make a mental note of these feelings. Use them in your stories. Make your characters real to the reader and enjoy the senses that we take so for granted.