Odorous Opinion

Bailey with the letter OThe writing tip for this week involves olfactory imagery, which is imagery dealing with scent. Smells, feelings, and memories are closely entangled because the area of the brain that processes smells is the same area that deals with emotions and memories.  This makes olfactory imagery a powerful tool for writers, since we can use it as a shortcut to connect with readers’ emotions.  

We all have scents that trigger certain memories.  Two examples for me are the smell of OFF bug spray, which always reminds me of a camping trip I took to Canada while in the Girl Scouts; and the smell of vinegar, which reminds me of dyeing Easter eggs at my grandmother’s house.  Each reader will have their own specific scent memories, but there are also some that seem mostly universal such as freshly cut grass, baking cakes, and sunscreen.  The most powerful scents are those that trigger emotions and memories from childhood, so those are the ones to really tap into when describing a scene.

We’ve all heard the writing advice to employ all five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) when describing things, since it adds life to your writing by helping the reader fully experience the world you’ve created.  I’ve even heard the suggestion to assign a different color highlighter to each sense and go through your manuscript marking each as it appears so you can visually see where the holes are for the various senses.  This strategy appeals to the OCD organizer part of me, but I also think it runs the risk of being ‘productive’ procrastination.  Most writers rely on sight and hearing to describe things, so it’s probably safe to assume you need to add more smell, taste and touch to your writing.  Even worse, seeing those gaps in bold colors might tempt you to fill them in ways that are forced rather than organic, something like:

Tina and her new foster child sat in the Waffle House not saying a word as the rain drummed a staccato beat on the roof.  The glare from the fluorescent lights highlighted the bruises on his cheek.  The comforting smell of butter and pancakes worked their magic, and he started telling her about the last fight with his dad.  Her fingers itched to hold his hands in support, but she knew that would frighten him, so ran them along the smooth, cold surface of the plastic booth.  Her stomach was growling so she leaned forward to lick a spot of sweet maple syrup off the table.

Of course this is an extreme example, but trying to fit in every sense in every scene can end up being a distraction to the actual story.  And you can also end up having your characters do really strange things to cover a sense, especially taste.

So while it is important to use all five senses in your writing, especially smell because of its powerful association with feelings and memories, make sure you use a balanced hand when doing so.  Don’t ruin the meal by dumping in a container of spices when a dash would do.  

What scents trigger memories for you?  Do you do anything specific to make sure you cover all five senses in your writing?  How Outstanding is Bailey with her letter O


Leslie Moon's picture

I like the visual of licking the syrup off the table
Very good advice something we often forget as our keyboard is flying away with an idea

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Jocelyn Rish's picture

Definitely.  Although I believe it's important to let our ideas fly away at first, and then worry about those sensory details later.

Jaye Robin Brown's picture

Bailey is outstanding.

I try to make mental notes as I revise. Sight - check. Sound - Check. Smell - check, etc. etc. Sight and smell and sound I'm usually good with. Taste and touch, I have to work at.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Yeah, I'm the same way.  Taste is really hard because it's tough to make organic to a story unless the character is eating, but I try to remember to incorporate touch more often.

jesstopper's picture

The smell of a newly-extinguished match always makes me think of wishing on birthday candles...

Jocelyn Rish's picture

That's an awesome memory association - both poignant and fun.

Donna McNicol's picture

Great visuals....

I've been taking walks with hubby lately and the wisteria is blooming. That smell takes me immediately to my childhood and my grandmother's house where the wisteria wreathed her entrance foyer.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

What a wonderful memory.  The smell of honeysuckle always make me think of playing outside as a child. 

Anjali's picture

I love the smell of a Baskin Robins. It reminds me of everything sweet from my childhood.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Great sense memory!  All those ice cream flavors together create a such a unique smell.

Susan Kane's picture

I am definitely one who hones in on the smells and the visuals. You are right--cramming all the senses together is exhausting to read.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Yeah, I've read stuff that feels like people are going through a checklist of senses rather than telling the story,

Valued Visitor's picture

Great post! I am revising my book and I have down on my TO DO list to check that I am using the senses in each scene. Visual is a given, but I don't use touch and smell as much as I should. I won't use all five in every scene, but I will use them more.

Thanks for sharing this post and for commenting on my post.

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Sheenah Freitas's picture

I absolutely love using the sense of smell in my writing. Obviously I'm not going to add it in every scene, but I do like to scatter it. As you said, if you try to use it too much everything just seems forced and cluttered. Too many senses to read at one time.

My favorite smell will forever be the "Army smell" as I like to call it. My dad was enlisted in the army and there's this unique smell that he had that I can still recall as if I just smelled it.

Valued Visitor's picture

LOL! I love your post. Scents get to me too. So true how they can totally effect your world. Like, I used to love eggs until the smell of them started turning my stomach and now, I don;t like them any more and I don;t really understand why when I always eat them.

Stephanay Jnote's picture

LOL! I love your post. Scents get to me too. So true how they can totally effect your world. Like, I used to love eggs until the smell of them started turning my stomach and now, I don;t like them any more and I don;t really understand why when I always eat them.

john myers's picture

Ooh, since I practically don't have a nose, this one's difficult for me! Nice post!

michelle's picture

Loved this!
I think a universal one is fresh laundry...
I love the smell of fresh popcorn... vanilla-scented candles...

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thank you so much to the rest of you for sharing your scent memories.  My blog has been acting up, which is making it harder to respond to comments, but I enjoyed reading about the scents that tickle your memories.  

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