1. SirSamkin
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    SirSamkin Member

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    Is smell important?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by SirSamkin, Feb 11, 2010.

    Hey, I was skimming through my manuscript, and I noticed that I didn't describe smell. Do you think that smell makes a difference in a novel?:confused:
     
  2. Norm
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    Norm Contributing Member

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    It's only important if it adds anything important to the story. If you see a part where you say to yourself "I really should mention the smell of this scene!" then by all means, go ahead. But don't force it because it's not important just to have..
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It can be. Smell is often the sense that directly triggers memories and emotions.
    You can't directly expose your readers to scent, though, and even if you did, the memories evoked would be those of your reader, not the characters.

    But you can allude to the effect a stray scent can have on a character, and your readers can probably identify.

    There are five senses. Many writers, especially new ones, concentrate only on sight and, to a lesser extent, sound. But if you want to make the reader feel a part of the story, you should bring in the other three senses as well, when appropriate.
     
  4. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here is a clip from a Vietnam war story I am writing. This scene is from my personal recollection and attempts to share the smells and squalor of poverty that drove so many young Vietnamese men into service of the Viet Cong. The smells and filth are important to advance the story...

    excerpt from Palace Dawgs:

    It was twilight when Sgt. Dorn and Paul slipped out the back door of the Cholon whorehouse. Makeshift huts filled a crowded alley where entire families lived in a single room built as lean-tos against nearby buildings. Flattened beer and soda cans acted as shingles on leaky roofs in a futile attempt to deflect monsoon rains. Stench of rat roasting over an open fire, and nuc mahm, a popular fermented fish sauce, permeated smoke emanating from the doorways. Raw sewage collected in puddles near the center of the alley, its acidic odor mixing with choking exhaust smoke from ever present two-stroke motorcycle engines. Amid the filth, two young boys ran barefoot, chasing a chicken that escaped from someone’s improvised pen. Nobody seemed to notice the Americans as they penetrated deep into the bowels of Saigon’s poorest slums.
     
  5. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    If you noticed the lack of smells, there was probably something that made you notice it. So try to find what that trigger was and see if it needs fixing. If you can't find any such trigger, then don't put in smell just for the sake of it, unless doing so would clearly improve the writing.
     
  6. DvnMrtn
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    DvnMrtn Contributing Member

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    if there is a purpose to describing smell (example: see Cog's post) then yes describe it. Don't describe things unless there is a point to doing so.
     
  7. ronmatt
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    ronmatt Member

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    For me, writing is akin to creating a stew. It should include flavor, texture, color and smell. It should be cooked at high heat to extract the flavors of the ingredients, then slowly simmered to meld those flavors. The herbs and spices added are the adjectives describing the flavor and smell.
     
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  8. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    There goes my plan for a scratch-and-sniff novel.

    Just kidding. I liked Ronmatt's stew analogy.

    I think smell (and sight and sound and touch, even taste) are valuable ways to enhance description. Combining these will create a better, more realistic picture for the reader, to allow the reader to feel as though he/she is there.

    I actually use smell quite frequently in my own novel.

    A few little snippets:

    "Come now, let’s walk.”
    The intoxicating scent of tulips and hyacinth drifted over them in a mist. Jefferson closed his eyes, serene, his chest expanding as he inhaled the garden air. Then he cocked his head toward Madison.

    ***

    Through bitter smoke, the salty scent of blood filled the church sanctuary.

    ***

    The air was thick and acrid, like an old attic, and like many old houses that Matthew had toured through the years.

    ***

    The room smelled of alcohol and ammonia. A miniature auditorium with a few dozen metal folding chairs faced a table arrayed with beakers, test tubes and lab equipment.
     
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  9. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    The problem with smells, and its sorta evident in Charlie's post above, is that people experience smells quite differently (whereas, to most functional people, things feel or look the same), or perhaps it's not so much that we smell them differently but that we lack the ability to accurately depict the smell.

    Take the blood example above: I think everyone is familiar with that smell/taste of blood. But where Charlie has chosen "salty" as the most apt choice for how he experiences that smell, I would perhaps have chosen "metallic", and someone else might have said something else, and when familiar smells are described in unfamiliar ways, its very jarring. Our experience of things through other senses are more universal (I'm sure we'd all agree on blood being red (or black, or one of those familiar and expected blood colours), and that it feels wet or sticky or some familiar liquid adjective).

    This lack of ability to communicate effectively, coupled with the strength of smells' power to evoke means that if you get the description wrong, you stand to fail spectacularly. If you can't find the perfect word, the perfect way to describe a smell, better to leave it out than to try with a weaker or less apt word.
     
  10. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    What part of the metaphor is "high heat" and "slowly simmered"?


    But, Arron, I think that Charlie would have used the word metallic if he had thought of it.
    EVERYONE I know considers blood to have a metallic taste, and the word salty almost works, too.
     
  11. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Sometimes it's easier to describe a scene using other senses like smell.

    I think touch comes instinctively. We don't have to say she touched or felt.

    She pressed her cheek against his warm, hard abs.

    Sound is easy as well, without having to say she heard.

    The gunshot blasted, piercing his ears.

    Sight is also easy.

    The rusted pick-up slouched on the grass in the front yard.

    But smell and taste are harder to use without using the filter words, tasted and smelled. This is probably why writers skip them, especially on first drafts. So rather on first drafts, include these senses, and use filter words if you can't think of anything better. Hopefully, when rewriting, you will think of a better way word it.

    There are definitely times when taste and smell can add a lot of visual power to a scene.

    A sour stench lingered thickly in the dark and damp alley. Reeking trash was scattered about--broken beer bottles, damp boxes, squishy diapers, muddy news papers.

    I think the better question is, how important is taste? Unless the person is actually eating something. The only other way I can really think of bringing taste into it, is poetic.

    The place filled his mouth with the taste of death.
     
  12. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    To me, blood has no scent unless infection is present. Also, salty is not a smell to me, it's a taste. In fact, there are not a lot of words that are specific to categories of scent. Here's a challenge:

    How many words can you think of that define a specific scent? For example, musty or pungent or sour.

    I think the key to using smell in writing is to relate the smell to physical things that produce the desired smell. For example, the odor of a baby's diaper creates a strong olfactory memory in most people, one often accompanied by gagging. Dirty feet, old attics and wet cellars produce a thick musty smell. Open sewers and decaying algae bloom produce similar smells. So, instead of trying to find a specific "smell" word, it might be as effective to use an analogous noun that would emit the desired odor.
     
  13. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Actually I think smell and taste are interrelated, being connected at the back of the throat. Just for fun, I googled "the smell of blood" and found I wasn't the only one who described the smell as salty. At least I know I'm not completely off my rocker. ::whew!:: :D Yes, it's also metallic, so I'd consider it an alternative.

    But the writer does have to use his or her imagination to come up with ways to describe smells (and sights, and sounds, and tastes, and feelings.)

    One could even use simile or metaphor. (For a musty smell I used "like an old attic," although I wasn't talking about an attic--simile.)

    Now you've all got me second guessing myself though on the blood... I still don't think it was bad. I actually thought it was good, and I prefer it to "metallic."

    I also think that most smells are also tastes. "Buttery" is a taste, but it's also a smell. So, too, I think, can smells be described as salty... or sweet... or sour...

    I think that sweat smells salty, as another example.
    Better example: The ocean has a salty smell.

    Sometimes it's true that blood has no smell, but when you can smell it, I think it smells salty. And sometimes metallic... although often metal also has no smell. I don't really smell anything when I open my utensil drawer or load my stapler, at least, I don't think I do... but I do think there's such a thing as a "metallic" smell.

    You know, none of these work in reverse though. You can't say "the bloody smell of the metal" or the "bloody smell of the salt as he filled the salt shakers." For that matter, "the sweaty smell of the salt." Ah, the things I think of when I'm tired and it's late...

    Charlie

    PS. I'm not quite sure I agree that it's easy to describe sound or sight either. I don't think anything in writing is easy, though I do enjoy it or I wouldn't be here. Sometimes I struggle with finding the right words to describe a particular sound or sight. But that's the fun and the challenge of it all. If the right words came to me instantly all the time... I don't think I'd be human. I'm sure even the best authors struggle to find the right descriptions, in all the five senses.

    Edit: I must answer this one.

    I personally believe that the best writing is butter basted to perfection, sprinkled with garlic, and then, cooked in a pre-heated oven at 450 degrees, and served with fava beans.
     
  14. DvnMrtn
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    DvnMrtn Contributing Member

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    Yeah smell and taste are interrelated but I think that salty can be a smell. Think of the breeze you can get that passes over a body of salt water its almost like you can smell the salt content. I donno just a thought.
     
  15. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    I don't think it matters if salty is a smell or not, so long as people relate to the writing.
     
  16. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You risk a cliché if you use 'metallic'. I must have seen that a million times to describe the taste or smell of blood.
    I'm sure it's good to consider smell when writing for atmosphere, but there again not everyone is that aware of smells. I'm certainly not (too many allergies in the past has dulled my sense of smell, maybe). If this is a deficiency in my writing, I think I make up for this by being very visually aware, and having a good memory of my feelings as a child.
    But for some people this sense IS very important. Myself, I'd only mention smell if it really had bearing on the story. I only notice something overpowering or really unusual. It wouldn't seem natural to mention smell otherwise.
     
  17. toker212
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    toker212 New Member

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    I thought this was a brilliant example. Without the smell, it definitely wouldn't be the same. You would get the visuals, but visuals and auditory sensations rarely cause someone to vomit or get sick. Bad smells always make me very queasy and I'm very reactive to how things smell in general. If a food smells nasty, no matter how good it is, I doubt I'll eat it because odor is half of the enjoyment of food.

    That's just an example, but smell can often conjure thoughts that other senses cannot.
     

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