Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What's that smell

One of my first critique partners left a very simple comment that has stuck with me ever since, "What does it smell like?" Good question. What does it smell like? I often read scenes where a picture is painted describing the color of the walls, the feel of the upholstery, the glisten of sweaty muscles, the sounds of screaming, and the taste of someone's tongue...which is all great, but the picture is incomplete. We're forgetting about smell.

Smell is an incredibly important sense too because it's commonly linked with memories and emotion. When I walk by someone wearing Ponds cream, I think of my mother. Moldy basement? I remember my summers spent at my Great Aunt's house in Tennessee. Drakkar Noir? Horrible flashbacks to the elevator in my sophomore dorm.

Take this scene:
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa and mounds of cat hair tangled in the threadbare rug. 

Now let's add this:
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa and mounds of cat hair tangled in the threadbare rug. All of it complemented by the burning stench of cat pee.

We move from being a little itchy and uncomfortable to running from the room with our hand over our mouth.

But let's talk a little bit more about smells and using the right smells. The one above works because 1, we're trying to make an unsightly environment and 2, even if you haven't smelled cat pee, you've smelled pee, and you know it stinks.

Let's change our scene to something nice.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions and the smell of warm, chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. 

Now I want to live there, curl up next to the cat, and eat warm, chocolate chip cookies. But let's change it one more time.

One more time.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions and the smell of snozzberries in the air.

What are snozzberries? What do they smell like? Are they bitter? Sweet? Does this turn our cozy couch into something yucky or keep it nice?

So many times I'm reading books where a room or person smells like lemongrass or honeysuckle or some other plant I can't immediately identify with so it doesn't really resonate with me except to say, "it smelled like flowers." And then I wonder why I'd want to go out with a guy who smelled so flowery. Flowers are a lazy way of adding scents, and using rare or indistinguishable scents don't help paint your picture.

Just for fun, let's change it again.
When I stepped into the living room, I was reminded of my Grandma's house. There was an overstuffed floral sofa with a sleeping cat nestled in the cushions, and the smell of gunpowder in the air.

WHAT?!? What's going on here? Who decorates like Grandma and smells like gunpowder? Why did the MC's Grandma's house smell like gunpowder? Are we looking at secret, old lady spies? Or just hardcore members of the NRA? Not only does this scent add flavor to the scene; it adds intrigue.

Now I think you're ready to start smelling things up on your own. Talk a walk through your latest work in progress and stop at each scene. Once you're there, ask yourself the burning question, "What does it smell like?"


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