Home / Writer Impossible: The Scent Of A Good Scene

Writer Impossible: The Scent Of A Good Scene

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In writing, we use details to create a vivid and believable scene. Characters or scenes that fall flat usually lack specific details, or the chosen details are so clichéd the reader glances over the writing and eventually closes the book, disgusted.

One of the most underused sensations in writing is scent. When I smell lavender, I think of my sister’s old piano teacher, Mrs. Ida E. Grass. Her tiny apartment smelled of sachets of lavender and cloves. They were scents both sweet and pungent. I could probably still find the apartment were I to go back: first floor, concrete steps, white clapboard building, four doors on the front landing, her door the furthest door on the left.

Inside were dark walnut furnishings and antimacassars on the tables and heads of the chairs. Her grey hair was pinned in a bun. She had a sweet smile, and she loved my sisters as they loved her. She wore wire glasses and had a matronly but kind disposition. She had a box of See's candy, and brought it out with great ceremony. I knew to choose only one. The feeling I had back then was of respect and warmth. Today, it would not be considered a good part of town, but back then it was safe and near the bus lines, which I imagine she probably used (as we all did).

Tonight, as I was cooking crab, the smell filled the kitchen. I opened the window and a cool breeze came in. The two combined reminded me of following my parents through Fisherman's Wharf. Men in rubber aprons were cooking Dungeness crabs. Steam from the large cauldrons swirled in the cold air, and the smell would envelop us as we shuffled along the crowded walkway.

The uncooked crabs would snap their claws in the air. They were red and still once they were cooked, and the men would take them out and wrap them for customers. Those who would buy them would take them over to the wharf and sit, tear open the paper wrapper, and eat it all there. What I remember the most is that I wanted to stop and buy some, but my parents never did. Perhaps this is why it is such a big occasion. I'm an adult. I can buy crab when I want.

Scent and smell are such strong elements and can set a scene. It affects us more than we realize, and it should be written into our books, both fiction and nonfiction. Maybe it's the smell of a sofa the dog has sat on, the scent of clean sheets fresh from the line (or in my case, the dryer). It can expose a whole story, strengthen an emotion, bring you to conclusions you never had before, and provide a sensual rhythm to the writing:

"The virile redolence of cigars, the pungent nip of pipe smoke, the tortoiseshell richness they evoked, constantly lured me out of the parlor on the porch, though it was the parlor I preferred, due to the presence of the Conklin sisters, who played our untuned piano with a gifted, rollicking lack of airs." -Truman Capote, The Thanksgiving Visitor

“I wasn't sure why but it seemed to have something to do with this place. Saigon. These streets are always full of that kind of mix of smells, some sweet something, fruit or flowers or incense, but something else too in the same air, dry rot or old fish or the exhaust from the motorbikes." -Robert Olen Butler, The Deep Green Sea

Recently, someone asked me about writer's block. Here's an idea: if you're stuck, start writing about something you smell. Describe it. Where were you when you first smelled it? What does it remind you of? Who were you with?

Bone up on your vocabulary. Try to find new ways to describe a smell. Combine smells that don't go together (Butler uses "flowers or incense," then follows it with "dry rot or old fish”). This not only gives you a range of smells, it also gives you a hint of chaos. Play with the words until you're describing something in a new way.

The caveat is to use restraint and take care not to over do it for your style and the piece you're writing. After all, too much scent is like being besieged by a perfume models in a department store, determined to spritz you at every step. A smell can kick off a flurry of writing.

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About Kanani

  • My pleasure, I hope you enjoy it.

    I used to read quite often when I was younger, but of late I find I do not have the time, with the writing and my time consuming interest in music and film.

    Although, there are times that I will have a similar reaction to a character or a song, sort of like a “what if.”

  • The NY Times reviewed it years ago, and I found it here.
    Thank you for the recommendation!
    What I’ve noticed in reading so many drafts of novels is that often they’ll have a huge kitchen scene, or they’ll be outside. Something is missing that could make the scene fuller. And so I’ll write in the margin: “What did is smell like?”

  • As soon as I saw the title of the column, I thought of the novel Perfume. Now, I have not read it, but I have seen the film adaptation. It is a wonderful film that does a great job of translating the use of smell to the screen.

    Check it out/read it if you haven’t…