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Using smell to improve your fiction

Iain Broome
Iain Broome
3 min read

Guest post by Icy Sedgwick
I was leaving my building this morning when I caught a strong whiff of something.

I couldn’t identify the mystery smell but it provoked a rather unpleasant memory of a particularly rotten individual whom I wish I never had the misfortune to meet.

Still, every cloud has a tarnished lining, and it got me thinking…how often do writers include smell in the composition of a scene?

Visual description

Plenty of descriptive passages begin with “He/she/it/I saw” or “He/she/I heard”, before the writer offloads their flashes of brilliance wrapped up in the kind of deft wordplay that Stephanie Meyer would sell her kidneys for.

It’s understandable – humans are visual creatures and we describe what we see in order for our world to make sense both to us, and to others.

We sometimes remember to include sound, which is handy since noise, or the lack thereof, helps to define our experience of our surroundings.

Subjective smells

Smell gets a bit of a raw deal and is often forgotten. I suspect this may be because smell is somewhat more subjective.

What smells like floor cleaner to me might smell like peach Melba to you. I might sniff that bottle of milk and gag at the stench of milk blossoming into rancid cheese, whereas you might still think it smells OK. It’s merely ‘a bit strong’.

Something I have never smelled

Not only that, but you might shy away from trying to describe a smell for fear of sounding like an over-enthusiastic wine buff. What if your reader has never smelled whatever it is you’re describing?

We can usually visualise an approximation of a scene based on descriptions, and even if we’re slightly wrong, whatever we’ve imagined will still suit the author’s purpose.

Yet the inclusion of smell hints at a very defined mental image, one that has been sculpted and honed with the precision of a Renaissance master.

And if you get it wrong…you’ve missed the mark by several miles as your reader puts down your book and goes off in search of a Dan Brown.

What smell can do for you!

The trouble with smell is it’s often better experienced than described. It’s a shame, because smell has the potential to help create strong scenes in a way that sight and sound simply can’t.

Say you have a character who doesn’t take care of himself. We shall cast this man as a creepy caretaker who skulks around his workplace leaving a trail of dirty mop prints. One night, our diligent protagonist runs into him after staying late at school.

Sure, you could describe lank hair, greasy skin or tattered overalls in desperate need of repair, but that’s been done to death. Thinking of an original visual image is a little more difficult in our postmodern age.

So how about we lose the physical description, and instead mention the odour of stale sweat that follows him around?

Maybe he leaves the smell of ‘wet dog’ in his wake. If you want to hint at his nocturnal proclivities, you simply add the essence of ‘damp earth’. Et voilà, a heady perfume that tells us more about this man than reams of physical description ever could.

The smell can even trigger a memory in our plucky hero of a previous encounter with the villainous rotter. Tell us the smell, and the mind will infer the rest.

Breathe in

So if you feel that your prose is a little flat, or you want to make your descriptions different from the hackneyed clichés that abound in fiction, I’d really recommend experimenting with smell.

It is a rich and varied world out there – all we have to do is breathe it in.

Image: mattwi1s0n

Share your thoughts

What a niff! Do you use smell in writing or are you guilty of neglecting some of your senses? Got any examples of great stinky fiction? We want to know – leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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I'm the author of the novel, A is for Angelica. Every week, I send Draft Mode, a newsletter full of tips and tools that help you improve your craft and promote your writing.

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