Posts Tagged ‘description’


To punch up how real and visceral your fiction seems, your descriptions should employ all of the five senses. Not necessarily in every scene, but certainly across your entire story, we want to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell your unique world.

Perhaps the sense authors omit most often is smell. What a missed opportunity! In the same way a single password can grant access to all of the data a company possesses, a single aroma can evoke a powerful flood of associations and feelings. Sometimes your fiction should stink.

I first noticed this in the 80s, when Steven King’s meteoric rise still generated controversy in literary circles. King likes to name specific products in his descriptions. The Old Guard condemned the technique as tacky. Yet 25 years after reading King’s scene where the viewpoint character discovers a murdered relative in the laundry room, I recall how realistic the scene felt to me, because the room reeked of Lemon Pledge. I knew that smell. I could imagine it. I got it.

Look at how easy it is to conjure up an entire setting when you imagine a single aroma: Baked apple cinnamon. Spent gunpowder. Night-blooming jasmine. Chlorine bleach. Hot, sun-parched asphalt. Lavender soap. Raw sewage, stinking so strong you can taste it on the back of your tongue.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I rarely have an opportunity for fun in the sun. But I grew up in SoCal. When I recall the smell of Coppertone, that olfactory password unlocks a vault filled with associations: fresh-from-the-bonfire hot dogs, slightly gritty when you chew them. The way your skin tingles with sunburn, simply from the touch of the air. The clammy feel of a cold wet swimsuit as you chase your friends to the snack shack.

Depending on the effect you’re going for, you can save yourself dozens of words simply by dialing up a single password: the appropriate aroma.

Aromas tie to emotions powerfully, because they bypass the conscious mind. They don’t require the same kind of mental decoding process that seeing and hearing often do. For readers, emotion turns the page. Don’t miss the opportunity to put them in the scene and dial up emotions, using a smell.

Of course, you can overdo it. We don’t want your novel to read like a literary scratch ‘n’ sniff card. Sometimes we’ll follow you more willingly if you lay some information between the lines. But occasionally, to really get us to go with you, you need to lead us by the nose.

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