I won’t pretend I get all the senses into my writing when I should. I’ll admit that there are episodes of Victorian Mistress where I look back and think I could’ve done something better. So I’m right there with you trying to work out the best way to describe scenes and how I can involve more than one sense. Scent can be a useful tool for this because it can repulse or invite or be incredibly erotic.
Now, this isn’t to say we have to describe the scent of everything, for a start how would describe the scent of a table? It can be sprinkled in for variety or impact, a description of a sewer wouldn’t be complete without a line referring to the awful stench, even if that line is something as basic as ‘it was too awful to comprehend’. Sometimes mentioning it and leaving the reader to fill in the space can be highly effect because they imagine something worse than we could describe.
It can be a temptation when we’re describing a scent to try and over describe it, in part, perhaps, because scent can be so complex. Something like the smell of baking bread is one a lot of people enjoy but it isn’t necessarily something you can break down and describe. We tend to think of the scent of baking bread as the scent of baking bread rather than something we can compare or approximate it to. Often it is a scent that is used to compare and approximate other scents to so you don’t necessarily have to describe it in depth and be specific because some scents are simply indescribable.
This might sound worrying but if we look at it another way we can’t break down what baking bread smells like, other than baking bread, but we know what it makes us feel. So instead of necessarily using adjectives to describe a scent we might describe how it makes the character feel or a memory related to it. Perhaps when they smell bread they think of granny baking it, or they remember a particular meal, in some cases a scent might even be associated with a particular memory. Perhaps they don’t like the scent and it makes them feel ill or reminds them of a bad memory.
We may, in one scene, want to impart a particular piece of backstory or reveal something about the character and a scent may lead us into this. They may smell baking bread and it sends them into a flashback of long dead granny baking bread when they were a child.
Another way writers have been known to use scent is a reoccurring element. A clue perhaps, one that often appears is the lingering scent of perfume either to denote a character we haven’t met yet but was recently in a room or the perfume of a character we have met and we know they’ve been there because of the scent.
One technique I’m often reminded of when considering scent is romance fiction where scent often plays a major part because it becomes entwined with the lover. Often The Lover will have a particular scent related to them, whether it’s their natural scent, a cologne/perfume or something with a scent such as tobacco which become associated with them. This scent is then used to build the intimacy and eroticism, I suppose because we don’t normally go up to people and sniff them. Unless someone is wearing a strong scent we don’t tend to notice what people smell like so it creates a sense of intimacy because they notice, sometimes in immense detail what this other character smells like.
I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of trying intricately describe a character’s scent but that is simply part of my style. Another writer may enjoy focusing on scent in their writing and describing it and this is perfectly valid because it is a stylistic difference. A piece of description can be perfectly satisfying without using scent we just have to experiment and find what works for us in our description.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more description see Finding Your Voice.
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