I was nosing around for the subject of today’s post, and sniffed out the sense of smell. It is under utilized in fiction. We rightly concentrate on sight and sound, because those are the most immediate and pervasive senses, necessary for the telling of a story. But touch, taste, and smell should be used judiciously to enhance the narrative.
Today, let’s take a whiff of some ways you can use smell in your fiction.
Create a Tone
At some point in the beginning of a scene, use smell to help set the tone. In Michael Connelly’s The Narrows, FBI agent Rachel Walling arrives at a desert crime scene, the work of the notorious serial killer, The Poet:
As they got close to the tents Rachel Walling began to smell the scene. The unmistakable odor of decaying flesh was carried on the wind as it worked through the encampment, billowed the tents and moved out again. She switched her breathing to her mouth, haunted by knowledge she wished she didn’t have, that the sensation of smell occurred when tiny particles struck the sensory receptors in the nasal passages. It meant if you smelled decaying flesh that was because you were breathing decaying flesh.
Boom. I’m there.
Reveal a Theme
In Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream, San Antonio detective Rebecca Montgomery is ordered into her lieutenant’s office:
Lieutenant Santiago’s office smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a by-product of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke-free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever managed to eliminate the odor.
Not only does this give us an added descriptor of the scene, but it also signifies the conflict between the younger detective and the old-school guard of the department.
Make a Comment
Travis McGee, the creation of John D. MacDonald, is a houseboat-dwelling “salvage expert” who gets dragged into various mysteries. One of the marks of a McGee is when he riffs on some contemporary issue, or makes a generalization that tells us about his view of life. In Nightmare in Pink, McGee is waiting on a bench at a police station, watching “the flow of business.”
It is about as dramatic as sitting in a post office, and there are the same institutional smells of flesh, sweat, disinfectants and mimeo ink. Two percent of police work is involved with blood. All the rest of it is a slow, querulous, intricate involvement with small rules and procedures, violations of numbered ordinances, complaints made out of spite and ignorance, all the little abrasions and irritations of too many people living in too small a space. The standard police attitude is one of tired, kindly, patronizing exasperation.
Now we know why McGee prefers to live on a houseboat, and goes around the cops when he’s on the job.
Show the Inner Life of a Character
McGee again. After the slings and arrows of the mystery in The Turquoise Lament, we have an epilogue. McGee is on his boat, The Busted Flush, with his friend Meyer. They’re playing chess.
I had Meyer crushed until he got cute and found a way to put me in perpetual check with a knight and a bishop. We turned off all the lights and all the servomechanisms that click and queak and we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the September night, enjoy the half moon roving through cloud layers, enjoy a smell of rain on the winds.
I love that smell, too, which carries with it both a sense of peace (which McGee needs) and a portent of coming storms—setting up the next McGee adventure. Nicely done, John D.*
So remember, it never stinks to use the sense of smell in your stories. Does that make scents?
*NOTE: The word queak in the last clip is in the print version I own. I wonder if JDM made a typo and then decided it sounded good, even though it’s not in the dictionary.