The unlocked secret of a “smellavision.”

Blessings to all on this rainy spring day. My lilacs have begun to bloom and the sweet scent permeates the air as I sit on my front porch, a balmy mix of moist earth and new life filling my senses. The smell of lilacs instantly brings me back to my youth, when the blossoming shrub outside our kitchen door made the beginning of May a time when my mother’s spirits seemed unusually high. She loved her lilac bush and went to great lengths to make sure she took advantage of the lavender blossoms by clipping them and placing them in every room of the house. Those few weeks in May were bittersweet, passing by much too quickly.

So what do lilacs have to do with writing, you ask? Today, I’d like to talk about using your senses when writing to engage readers. We all love to describe how things look and feel, but what about sound, taste, and smell. Of all of these, I think the sense of smell is highly underrated. Perhaps because it is so difficult to describe how things smell, and do it in a unique way. We easily revert to clichéd phrases like our hero smelling “musky” or “woods-like”. Finding new ways to describe scents is challenging, but that’s what makes for a fresh voice in writing.

Smells are powerful and can bring rise to emotions we didn’t even know we had. I call them “smellavisions.” You know, the image that comes to mind when you think of chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven? We all have those “scent triggers” that can bring forth a memory, a feeling, or an image. A well-placed and vivid “scent” word or phrase can also add depth to your character by bringing their memories and emotions to the surface.

Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will probably never forget Jamie Frasier’s violent response to the scent of lavender, a residual effect after having been tortured by the sick and villainous Black Jack Randall who apparently doused himself in lavender water, not uncommon in the eighteenth century. But Jamie’s visceral response is powerful and evokes extreme emotions even from readers. Certain scents, described vividly and accompanied by powerful verbs can bring your reader straight to the heart of your character’s experience.

Take this line from HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES.The crack of gunfire exploded in the air…once…twice…three times. I flinched with each pop, the smell of gunpowder thick in the warm mist raining down over the cemetery. What emotion does this evoke? Does it paint a clear picture and put you right into the character’sexperience? It’s the first line of the book and you already know so much about what’s happening based on this one vivid “smellavision.” Use “smell” words to create a mood, set a scene, or evoke a certain emotion from your character.

Today’s unlocked secret: As writers, we have the power to create an experience that readers will remember. But in order to do this we must use all the senses, use them wisely, and use them to their fullest effect by pairing them with vivid descriptors and powerful verbs.

Can you think of a paricular “smellavision” that stands out in your mind from a favorite book? How do you describe smells?


9 thoughts on “The unlocked secret of a “smellavision.””

  1. Couldn’t agree more PJ! Using the 5 senses is a must – otherwise writing is flat and lifeless. Funny you mention lilacs. It’s one of my least favorite smells. One June, when I was a teenager, we were all celebrating my mother’s birthday. That evening both our dogs were sprayed by a skunk. Someone – who didn’t realize they had been sprayed – let them inside. The panicked pooches laced the entire house with rank, pungent skunk smell. The stench was so pervasive it ruined my mother’s birthday cake (an Italian rum cake!). After the adults rangled the dogs back outside, a well meaning neighbor went around the house spraying lilac scented de-oderizer. For the next few days all we could smell and taste was lilac scented skunk odor. Even now, I get a bitter taste in my mouth remembering.

    As for my favorite book – Harry Potter instantly comes to mind. JK Rowling’s description of butter beer makes me crave it ever time!

    1. Butter beer–yumm–me too, Casey. JK Rowling did a great job with her sensory details. I think that is one of the HP series’ biggest strengths, other than the amazing plotting and character development:-)

      My dog and I got skunked once and I had that god-awful smell stuck in my sinuses for months. Every once in a while, someone would say to me, “Do you smell a skunk?” i would cover my nose and admit, “I’m so sorry…that’s me.” Mortifying! Now whenever I smell skunk, it makes me physically nauseous. And I don’t care what home remedy or chemical you use, NOTHING covers or gets rid of that smell!

  2. Such a great post, Paula. There have been tons of studies about the power of our sense of smell, particularly in association with memory and recall. It’s no small wonder that a description including scent can be so immersive for readers.
    I have a funny skunk story, too. My wife grew up in an area with a lot of skunks, and when she moved away to go to college, she would have a pleasant association with that smell. I’d make the appropriate disgusted noises, and she’d say, “Oh, it smells like home!” Lol!

    1. Thank you Greg! Nice to have you here today. Hilarious skunk stories…a book perhaps? If you write it, the skunk will have sharp claws and big teeth:-)

  3. How great thy smells. I love the story of two boys on their way to camp, smelling the fragrance of country fresh pine trees on the way. One boy came back from camp and raved about his summer skills and adventures. The other boy came back crying how awful, how he was picked on, how he had no friends. The next trip into the country, the fragrance of fresh pine elicited a happy face on one boy, the other boy cried real tears. Smells are critical to memory, emotions, reactions. Holidays have their own special fragrances. And now, according to a report on ABC news yesterday, May 7th, a new perfume is being created that will evoke the smells of states across our nation. Like, New York . . . what does Coney Island smell like? Nathans hot dogs. Like, New Jersey . . . Seaside? Cotton Candy. Like, Connecticut . . . horses? It is supposed to be horse country. What do you think? What does Connecticut smell like? The perfume has to be pleasant. Is the smell of horses pleasant? Or does Connecticut smell like Long Island Sound and its beaches? Guess it depends who you talk to. Great post Paula.

    1. Your responses always bring a smile to my face, Gail. Connecticut smells like a river to me. Not a terrible smell, but earthy, moist, like fishing on a spring day after it has rained. I’m not a fan of perfumes and I’m quite fragrance sensitive, so if its a chemical version of something natural, it will likely not do it for me.

  4. Couldn’t agree more with you about using the 5 senses in writing. Describing smells is something I have to work on – a little weak in that area.

    I too love the smell of lilacs too. Growing up we had a bush next to the side door. I don’t have any on my property but this year I couldn’t resist any more and cut some from a vacant property to put in my house. The smell was wonderful. Next to be cut and brought inside is lily of the valley – but I own those. : )

    1. Hi Donna, We all need work on adding those difficult to describe senses. i have a tough time with tastes. Smells are easier for me. My lilacs are just coming into bloom so I’ll be out cutting some tomorrow. Enjoy your Lily of the valley!

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