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?
*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.