Have you ever sat and talked with someone to whom you’re very attracted—perhaps early in a relationship—and you wanted desperately to reach out and touch them? All you can do is listen and watch but you really want to immerse yourself in them—to smell their skin and kiss their smile. It’s a powerful sensation.
Do not make your readers feel this way!
In writing, it’s far too easy to focus on sounds (dialogue) and images (description). We often forget about those other three senses—taste, smell, and touch. Perhaps the most potent of these senses is smell. Consider this:
Randy walks into the deserted office. An air conditioning vent rattles. Outside, car horns blare and traffic hums. Haphazard stacks of paper cover the desk. Bits of white stuffing peek out of the brutalized chair. On the dented filing cabinet, something furry grows inside a Darth Vader coffee mug.
So that gives us a sense of the room, but check out how much deeper into the moment (and the character’s head) you get when the other sense are involved:
Randy walks into the deserted office. The chilled air cools the sweat on his shirt. He shivers, echoing the rattling air conditioning vent. Outside, car horns blare and traffic hums. Bits of white stuffing peek out of the brutalized chair. On the dented filing cabinet, something furry grows inside a Darth Vader coffee mug. The room smells like sweaty socks and too much hair product—like high school.
When describing a scene, the sense of smell can clue you in to the subtle histories of a place. It can tell you something beneath the surface. A hint of cigarette smoke, rotten trash, melted candlewax, disinfectant . . . these can all give clues about a setting’s recent history.
Smells can also trigger memories in the POV character, as well as the reader. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, a region closely tied to memory. So, scents can be an easy, relatable way to segue into a flashback.
As you craft your scenes and chapters, make a point of including all the senses, especially smell. Your written world will be all the richer – and smellier – for it.