If you read how-to books on improving your writing, one trendy idea you’ll encounter again and again is to “engage all 5 senses,” meaning that you should include details in your descriptions for: looks, sounds, touch, taste, and smell.
Smell is the killer. It’s so hard to work in descriptions of smells. Jasper Fforde, in his Thursday Next series, pokes fun at this by insisting that most of the items inside the world of books do not, in fact, have a smell. On the other end of the spectrum is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the protagonist of which sniffs more objects than a bloodhound (Claire often stops to analyze scents of things even when someone is holding a gun on her.).
Here’s the problem: we think of scents as something precise, which in turn makes them hard to describe in ways other than mentioning the thing they smell like. So if you’re describing a banana, it smells like … a banana and nothing else.
This is a theory I’ve been working on for a while. Stay with me here.
Anything that you see can be described in a number of ways, by selecting which elements to focus on. A person is comprised of so many blended features that you can’t take it all in at once. When you are introducing a character, you pick the things that mark them as different – hair is common, eyes, stature, build, how they hold themselves, perhaps an odd mannerism. There is a lot to work with. And describing how that person smells can involve a mixture of things they’ve been into .. but often it isn’t appropriate to the image you’re setting up to mention the smell of sweat/body odor that modern society tries to mask.
But when you’re talking about something simpler like an apple, it smells like a dang apple. Nothing else. And the smell has no components to break apart, because we take it in all at once.
And metaphors are a mess.
Let’s say you’re describing the color of a tomato. It’s red, sure, but you want to take it further. There are a million things in the red spectrum that you can compare it to: a rotten apple, the blush of a young maiden, the sunset, Rudolph’s nose. These things all work to not only evoke the color but also set the tone of how you want the reader to view the object.
Now let’s try that with the scent. Try saying that a tomato smells like “apples pickled in vinegar.” Well, first of all, they don’t. But just reading that sentence is apt to jumble your brain a bit because you’re asking people to summon two distinct smells and then try to merge them. That’s not something we do naturally. The mind rejects it and it crashes the story.
No, the only good way to describe a smell is simply to say what the smell is and let the reader take it from there. For example, go ahead and say it smells like a tomato. It gets right to the point and there’s nothing in the world that smells like a ripe tomato.
My point here is not that you should ignore the advice of using the “5 senses” in your writing. I just wish more people would take the next step in dispensing advice and warn against trying to handle scents the way you do other descriptions. All you really need to do to pull the reader in is mention the ambient aromas in the scene.