by Lillian Csernica on April 16, 2013
Again and again we hear the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” I say, “Smell! Don’t tell!” Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste is the order of sensory priority I find in most of what I read. Neglecting to use the olfactory sense is a real loss. Science has demonstrated how powerful the olfactory sense can be in stimulating memory. By stimulating the readers’ memories in ways that echo our characters’ experiences, we can heighten our readers’ connection to the characters and improve the depth of our writing.
In “Fallen Idol,” the first short story I sold, my hero wakes up to realize he’s been tied down on a wooden door:
“A strap bound my forehead and another clamped my mouth. The smell of old made me want to gag.”
If you know what an old seat belt smells like, you’ll understand immediately. I wanted to evoke decay, abandonment, something forgotten and left to rot.
Some common olfactory associations include movie theater lobbies and buttered popcorn; kindergarten classrooms and clay, glue, or crayons; hospital corridors and some pine-scented disinfectant; a casino and cigarette smoke. These associations are so real and so common that they cannot fall into the category of cliché. The use of key smells to make our characters and settings multi-dimensional will add richness and texture to our writing.
Take a moment to think about smells you love, smells you hate, smells that have powerful meaning for you. Write down these smells, your reactions, and the memories they evoke. This raw material could come in very handy.
Here’s my list:
Pine-Sol, undiluted. Hospitals. Nursing homes. The place where my great-grandmother died. Sickness. Death.
Peppermint. Christmas. Candy canes. No point because neither John nor Michael can eat them. Loss of tradition makes me sad.
Freshly mown grass. Green. Allergies. Asthma. Can’t breathe. Rescue inhaler. Nasty taste. Can’t play outside.
Rose incense. Church. Peace. Sunlight through stained glass. The jingle of the little bells on the censer as the priest swings it.
See what I mean? Smells are the doors to memory, leading to one association after the other. Do you have a favorite scent? One you avoid no matter what?