Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Use Smells and Tastes for Powerful Writing

Most writers have heard how important it is to use all the senses to make a story come alive. But sometimes it's difficult to find the right words, especially when it comes to describing smells or tastes. Here are some tips for using smells and tastes in your writing:

Write what comes naturally. Trying to put smell and taste in every situation will seem unnatural. Some settings lend themselves to describing tastes or smells more than others. Use it where it fits -- to introduce a memory, to add richness to a setting or situation, to bring out character.

Use the emotion. Smells and tastes are strongly connected to experiences and feelings -- the cinnamon scent of grandma's cookies, the faint smell of your boyfriend's scent on a pillow, the antiseptic smell of the hospital where Dad was sick. Tying smells and tastes to feelings in your writing can strengthen the emotion.

Make comparisons. There really aren't that many words to describe smells or tastes compared to vision, so it's often useful to compare an unfamiliar smell or taste to a familiar (and interesting) one.

Be specific. Using a specific descriptor always creates a sharper image than a vague one. Think about the word "stink". "The stink of wet dog" evokes a totally different sensation than "smelly sock stink" or "onion breath stink".

More considerations when using smells and tastes in writing for children:

Character reactions. Reactions to smells and tastes reveal character. A fussy kid is bothered by strong tastes and smells. Some people are "supertasters" and react to even a hint of a taste. You can give your character an interesting quirk by giving him a specific smell or by having her always react strongly to a particular taste.

Background and range of experience. Here I go again, talking about filtering everything through the main character's perspective. But it's so important for using tastes and smells effectively. Your character's background affects the way they experience the world. The expression "sour as a lemon" only works if your character has seen or eaten a lemon. Since I write MG, the smells and tastes I include need to be relevant to the age group of my readers - think "bubble gum" vs. "fine wine."

Cliches. Be aware of whether your sensory comparisons for taste and smell are cliched. Sometimes you want them to be. "Sour as a lemon" evokes a specific taste and can get a point across quickly. On the other hand, using too many cliched expressions could make your writing seem stale or ordinary.

Sensory overload. A choice word here or there can sometimes be more powerful than a long description. When writing for kids, go for a word or phrase with a strong image and leave out the wordy descriptions. How much detail do you need for each sense? Do you need to include all the senses in every description?

Do you have any tips on using smell and taste in your writing? Have you read any children's books that are good examples of how to write with smells or tastes?

Links:
*If you know of any other useful links about using the senses, let me know and I'll include them.

 

Feed Your Senses and some ways to use Common Senses at Paranormal Point of View.

Karen Strong has some great examples of effective scenes that use smell and taste.

Some strategies for getting in touch with your senses at Adventures in Children's Publishing.

Over at the Do It Yourself Degree in Creative Writing, you'll find some tips on using each of the senses in Writing Through the Senses.

The Language of the Senses makes some interesting points about how the senses are handled differently in writing.

Jess at the Falling Leaflets talks about writing with the five senses.

Faith Hunter discusses ways for writing with taste and smell.

Check out this in-depth article on writing with the sense of smell by Chip Scanlan.

At The Bookshelf Muse, you'll find an invaluable resource for describing emotions, textures, weather, and settings.

See also my posts on Words for Describing Smells and Ten Non-Food Ways to Use Taste in Writing.

17 comments:

  1. Taste is the one I struggle with most, because unless I'm eating (or bleeding into my mouth), it's not something I think about.

    Great post, Andrea!

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    1. Stina, I've been thinking lately about other situations besides eating where taste is involved! Watch for an upcoming post on that.

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  2. Oh, I love this! Smell is one of my favorite tools to use in writing, especially when I'm talking about another person. We all smell differently, and because I write romance, this comes into play a lot... usually in a "he's-so-dreamy" way. : )

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    1. So true. And I was thinking about how, for settings, people's cars and homes all have a unique smell.

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  3. Wow-great post. Esp. your thoughts on food and emotions! You know this is something I've not included enough in my writing.

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    1. Deb, I need to work on including more of this too.

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  4. You've made some wonderful points, Andrea. I might add use taste and smell to highlight your character's state of being at the time. Emily points out that smells heighten a character's state of being in love. The smell of his shampoo--intoxicating! Use taste to show your character is depressed or sick. I'm trying to remember that my hungry character is going to find any food smell appetizing, and may connect and compare other smells to food because she hasn't eaten.

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    1. Thanks Kate, this is very useful. It could be subtle way to layer in details of mood or emotional state in a particular situation.

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  5. What a great post of important reminders. It all should flow in naturally, so much so that the reader doesn't even recognize it. Great links too!

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    1. Yeah, getting the writing to a point where the reader doesn't recognize the technique is always the hardest part!

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  6. These are two senses I really don't use. I love your tip about specificity -- this is what always draws me in. Especially food! Ha, ha.

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  7. Yes, and it lets you give your character unique details that set them apart. I'd think the comparisons of some smells and tastes that a character makes would be specific to them.

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  8. Smell is such an under-rated sense, I think. Smells can evoke a whole memory, unleash an entire scene. And smell reminds us of things. It can be powerful when used.

    Taste. Now there's one I don't use much. I have characters eating, but I don't pay much attention to the sensory part of eating.

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  9. These are all so excellent, especially BE SPECIFIC.

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  10. Great post, especially your thoughts about filtering sensory details through what a character would notice. Thanks for another great post!

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  11. Hi Andrea - I am also an "Andrea"! I found this page through an exhaustive search on trying to find some help with writing for a character who experiences a truly awful olfactory experience. He is at a murder scene and, well, dead bodies...

    How do you 1) describe a smell that you, as the writer, can only imagine (or theorize based on other authors' work) but can take a good guess at and 2) if you're writing in a Deep POV mode - you *are* the character - how the heck do you show him/her reacting to this disgusting stench?

    Showing a facial expression doesn't work if you're in Deep POV - the character can't see his/her own face. Having them say something like "Yuck!" doesn't work - it's out of character and insufficient. I'm stumped.

    Any suggestions?

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    1. Hi Aakira,

      That sounds so challenging! As for the smell, most writers seem to compare other smells to ones they already know, or even a combination of smells they know, e.g. It smelled worse than...whatever you think smells really horrible.

      In terms of nonverbals, I think there are lots of ways you could show a reaction - how about shrinking away, even if he doesn't want to; turning his head; hiding his nose in his collar, etc. A good resource to check out is The Emotion Thesaurus (find out more at The Bookshelf Muse) for unique ways to show disgust or even horror.

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