One of the important aspects of smell is knowing when to use it and when not to use it.
Smell is great to use to establish a setting or to indicate when a setting changes. The minute your ancestor steps in the kitchen and can smell the biscuits baking or the soup burning. It is also important to be timely with your smells in your story. Don’t decide to describe that smell after your ancestor has been in the kitchen for an hour.
Smells can be used to alert your ancestor to change or impending danger. The smell of the air changes just before a storm, the smell of something burning. Even the perfume of an ancestor can alert the reader or another character that they have entered the room. Our ancestor would have used their sense of smell to warn them of animals or of food sources such as fresh berries, apple trees or mushrooms, the smell of a skunk or a bear without having to see them.
Smells Evoke Emotion.
Smell does an excellent job evoking memories and emotions. Many of us can connect a smell from our childhood with emotion. The smell of chocolate chip cookies baking brings back wonderful memories of arriving home from school to warm cookies. My friend doesn’t like the smell or taste of mushrooms. She grew up poor, her mother would pick mushrooms from the roadside for dinner. It represents their severe poverty and embarrassment, therefore, refuses to eat a mushroom.
Think about the smells that evoke memories for you. If you are aware of the smells in your own life that evoke memories you can learn to use them in your stories. Perhaps there is a scent that belongs organically to your ancestor. Smell is also an excellent way to introduce backstory. A scent that evokes a memory for your ancestor helps them slip into a memory that can deliver some backstory.
Smell as Character Trait
Some people just have their own smell. Whether is comes from their soap or perfume or the laundry detergent they use. Also, think of your ancestor’s occupation. Some people carry the smell of their occupations with them. I find mechanics often smell like grease. My daughter sells body products, she smells of a collaboration of scents from the store. Sometimes their smell can be a metaphor for their personality.
Smell as Culture
Indeed some cultures come with very distinctive smells, through their unique foods they eat and spices they cook with. An Italians pores might ooze of garlic and Asian Indian of curry. Often their homes, food and body will carry these scents.
Choose a Showpiece Scent
Think about using a smell as a showpiece for your story. The scent may act as a symbol, or it may represent your stories theme. A scent that you can weave throughout the story play off of it and leave an imprint on your reader can become a significant symbol in your story.
Contrasting Good and Bad Smells
Two opposite smells can symbolize the contrast between your protagonist and antagonist in your story or the struggling forces in the story.
Tips for Describing a Smell
- Identify why you want to describe the smell. Do you want to evoke a meaning or feeling for the reader? Signal a change in scenery?
- If you can observe the smell in real life then do so, so that you can describe the smell as authentically as possible.
- Be observant of smells in your everyday surroundings. How are particular smells described by others, in advertising, other stories?
- When attempting to describe a smell brainstorm all the possible adjectives you can do help to describe the smell.