The 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?