Ideas, My Thoughts, Self-editing Tips

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Scent. The forgotten sense.

Take a look at your work in progress. How often do you invite the reader’s nose into the story? My guess? Not as often as you should.

Consider real life for a moment. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the life where you have to do laundry and feed the dog and occasionally acknowledge the existence of your spouse and/or children.) Breathe in each the following. Be sure to pause long enough for the brain to write the scene that goes with the scent.

Diesel fuel.

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

The sidewalk after a summer rain.

Burning plastic.

Theater popcorn.

Cigar smoke.

Wet dog.

Spinning class.

The ocean.


Is your head spinning yet? Good. Then you get my point. In real life (see above for reminder of what this is), scent is one of our most powerful memory-triggers. Whereas I sometimes struggle to re-paint the visual elements of a past experience, scent memory acts like an impatient time machine. The moment I smell vanilla, I’m in my mother’s kitchen, barely as tall as the counter, fingers dusted with flour and waiting impatiently for the first spoon of cookie dough. The heady tease of campfire smoke takes me to any of a dozen childhood-through-adult memories, each flashing by in some visceral “Best Of…” camping memories video. And then there’s the unique pheromonic signature of those we love… or once loved. Sigh. The paradox of hope and a broken heart in a single inhale? Don’t even get me started on that one.

As with every other aspect of writing, using scent in story is an art form. It’s not as simple as saying “She smelled of raspberries.” Here are a few basic tips to make the most of scent:

  • Vary the manner in which you put the scent on the page. While it’s easy to write “she smelled like…” or “the air smelled like…” and so on, this sort of simplistic introduction to scent can actually diminish the reader’s experience over time. Mix it up. Use sentence fragments. Or just toss the source of the scent on the page. (“When she reached for the spoon, she knocked over the open bottle of vanilla and it soaked her sleeve.”)
  • Choose your scents carefully – what takes you back to a happy memory could take someone else back to a sad one.
  • Obscure scents can be effective (they take readers to very specific places), but familiar ones will have the most universal impact.
  • Allow plenty of space around the scent. Unless you are trying to overwhelm the reader in a particular scene, don’t throw a bouquet of aromas on the page. A single mention of burning plastic can linger almost as long in a story as it does in real life (remember real life?).
  • Scents can be used for good or for evil. Don’t be afraid to use them for the latter. Nothing will make a reader remember a villain more than being told he reeks of a decomposing mouse.

The nose matters.

That’s all for today. But before I go, I thought I’d share some of the titles I almost used for this post. Just because.

  • The Ol’factory
  • Scents and Sensibility
  • Sulphur for Your Art
  • The Odor Way to Write
  • Scratch and Sniff Your Way to a Pulitzer

In case you’re wondering – I haven’t forgotten the “First and Last” contest. Your entries are lined up in my reading queue. I’ve skimmed them once already. You people are quite creative. And slightly insane. In a (mostly) good way.

Winners will be announced Friday.

Smell you later…

12 thoughts on “Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

  1. I love that you post so late at night. When it’s quiet. And I should be writing, or smelling, or doing anything other than cruising through untended blogs…

    Wet dog. Yes. Just used that one in my WIP. And just washed the dog.

    Why do I always want cookies after I read your blog? Why do I always want cookies?

    And I can still smell that burning plastic, by the way.

    1. After I wrote my post (which I actually finished earlier in the day, but scheduled for the bewitching hour of midnight), I decided I needed to have some chocolate chip cookies. But I had no eggs. So I made the trek to the local grocery story just for eggs. (Well, and milk, too. When my son stays here, he likes milk. Me? It comes in handy for making homemade mac’n’cheese, but otherwise? I’m just giving in to the inevitability of osteoporosis.)

      So now my little apartment smells like childhood. And just in time for dreams.

      About that plastic smell… I have found that editing by candlelight – while romantic and/or eerie – can be dangerous if you’re using the earlier, plastic-shelled MacBook. Might want to double-check to see if that burning odor is coming from real life.

  2. All funny business aside, smells do capture times, places, scenarios. So effective.

    This one brings back summer and a certain boy in my childhood: the smell of the old fashioned squirt guns with the rubber stoppers. Can you smell them?

      1. I can’t stand the smell of cut grass. Possibly because when I was little I tried boiling grass clippings in the microwave to see if I could make green dye.

    1. I not only can smell them, I can feel the water from the squirt gun hitting me in the eye, which is totally against the rules and therefore negates the rules so I can aim my gun at the neighbor kid’s face and then how come I’m the one who gets in trouble when he goes crying home to his mother?

      1. Because he was a whiny little wimp who probably had a bad aim in the first place or pretended he didn’t “mean to”, so of course when you retaliated, you were being “mean”. Ugghhh!

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