Friday, January 21, 2011

Smells for Thought

I thought Cricket McRae's January 12th post on Inkspot about food being a useful tool to enhance storytelling (Food for Thought) was very interesting. So, I decided to expand on that post with a discussion about how stimulating the reader's sense of smell can also enhance storytelling.

Smells can trigger intense memories, especially childhood memories.

Smell and memory are closely linked because the olfactory bulb, which processes smell sensations, is part of the brain's limbic system. The limbic system also includes the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. So memories and smells get associated or linked in our brains within the limbic system. Many people are transported back to their mother's kitchen when inhaling the scent of her signature dish. Or to their father's garage when smelling engine oil. And who doesn't think of Christmas when smelling the scent of pine?

Smells can affect behavior.

This concept is the basis for aromatherapy and scent marketing. In aromatherapy, lavender and chamomile are used to induce calming, lemon to lift depression, and peppermint to raise alertness, for example. Scent marketing is the use of aromas to enhance a customer experience or to brand a product. For example, a coconut spice scent is pumped through the HVAC system of the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas to compliment the lush foliage and give gamblers more of a "jungle experience." And who hasn't heard of the idea of baking cookies or an apple pie before opening a house for a real estate showing?

Smells can trigger emotions.

Many of our likes and dislikes of particular smells are based on strong emotions we felt while first smelling them. When we're exposed to that smell again, the emotion comes along with it. Thus, when they smell the coppery scent of fresh blood, many people experience fear, fear that they felt when they were injured as a child. Based on past experiences, the same smell can trigger different emotions in different people. The salty scent of the ocean can bring happiness to someone who spent hours playing on the beach as a child or can bring fear to someone who almost drowned in the ocean in their past. Many smells, however, trigger the same emotional reaction in the majority of the human population. Most people, for example, find vanilla to be a sweet and satisfying scent, so it is a component of many perfumes.

So how does the author use smells? We can't infuse the pages of our books with scents, but we CAN describe those scents. Those descriptions evoke memories of the scents in readers' minds. Those scent memories bring along with them other memories and emotions and behaviors in the readers that are associated with the scents. And that pulls readers deeper into the scene, so they are THERE experiencing the story with the characters.

Here are some examples of how I used smells in my upcoming release, Deadly Currents, which features whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner. What do you feel and remember when you read them?

In a description of Mandy's boyfriend (who probably smells like a lot of men who work outside):

"When he gathered her in his arms, Mandy inhaled his familiar scent of soap, leather, and the grassy outdoors. "

In a meal description:

"When he lifted the lid of the extra large pizza box in the kitchen, releasing hot steam filled with the tantalizing aroma of cheese, ham, and pineapple—her favorite toppings—she felt faint."

When Mandy walks into a beauty salon:

"A white jarred candle glowing on the reception desk scented the room with vanilla, though it didn’t completely mask the underlying chemical odors of hair coloring and nail polish."

So, evoking the scent memories of readers can be a very powerful tool for the writer. Can you think of a particularly powerful use of smell in a piece of fiction that you've recently read or written? Share it with us!


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great point about an often overlooked sense, Beth! Thanks.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I agree, excellent point. I use smell often to evoke emotion. Here's a line I wrote recently.

"He smelled of shaving cream, a special blend he ordered online and applied with a badger hair brush. She took a deep breath, imprinting it into her memory forever."

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Elizabeth, and great example, Sue Ann! Anyone else have a good example of using scents in fiction?

Terry Odell said...

When I judge contests, the sense of smell is one that's overlooked a lot. (Sense of touch even more so)

A slightly longer passage from my What's in a Name? Hope it's okay to post.

"It just hit me. Like someone jammed a two-by-four in my gut." His hands gripped the arms of the chair and she saw his knuckles whiten. "I had this memory … of my mom."

She put her hand over one of his, gently massaging it. "You said she died when you were three. That's not too young to have memories."

"She used to bake chocolate chip cookies. Bri and I would help—but mostly I got to lick the bowl." He gave a quiet snort. "You were right about that."

Her own memories intruded—her and Luke in the kitchen together, laughing and making messes when he'd tried to help. She lowered her head into Blake's chest.
His voice resonated through her. "Once she let me stir. The dough was so stiff and I sent the whole bowl crashing to the floor. Smashed into bits. Bri pitched a fit, but Mom told me it didn't matter. She cleaned up, made another batch of dough and put the bowl in the sink for me, so it wouldn't go anywhere."

"Sounds like she loved you."

"I don't know why that came back. I opened the bag of chips and—wham."

"The sense of smell is a powerful trigger for memories. That and everything else you've been thinking about—family—you know."

"Guess so. But I think there's another problem."

"Hmm?" Thoughts of Dwight Hollingsworth and people trying to kill her were fading away. She snuggled into Blake's lap and noticed he probably had something else on his mind. He adjusted her so their eyes met. Her breath quickened.

He touched his lips to her forehead. "I'm in love with you."

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Darrell James said...

Beth- In my current WIP, the smell of overripe appples plays a role in triggering a long repressed memory in my main character.

I personally react strongly to the smell of wood. My father was a cabinet maker. He smelled of saw dust all his life. The scent, to this day, provokes fond memories of him.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your example, Terry. And Darrell, I agree that the smell of a wood workshop is wonderful. For me, the smell of wood brings back memories of camping and gathering wood for the campfire.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article on the sense of smell. In my WIP my teen MC goes into her baby brother's room and says, "Whoa! How can such a big smell come from such a tiny little boy?" Then she changes his diaper. I didn't think I needed to go into too much detail on that one :) Memories from any of you moms??

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your comment, Catherine, and yes, I think most people know exactly what a dirty diaper smells like!

Here's some comments from Facebook:

From Erin York: "So important! I love it when reading a scene makes me hungry."

From Anne Stuessy: "Good post, Beth - I just shared it on Sniplits FB page."

Deborah Sharp said...

nice post, Beth ... very vivid descriptions in your newest, using the sense of smell. Lots of writers overlook that one, relying solely on sight and hearing. Touch is a good, underused sense, too.
Personally, I can still remember the scent of tobacco mixed with the Old Spice my daddy always wore.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Deb, for your comment. When you mentioned tobacco, it reminded me of a chapter MWA meeting recently, where a police detective said that all of the victims of a serial rapist mentioned that he smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, even though he had his face covered. That and his eye color were important clues.

Cricket McRae said...

You are so right about the importance of smells, Beth! I once had a writing instructor who wrote "smells?" at the top of any page that didn't include at least one.

I recently ran across this in an ms:

"Somewhere a banana was turning brown."

Lois Winston said...

Beth, I agree that the sense of smell can be a huge trigger in real life and in fiction. However, what I see in too many books is an overuse of the five senses. Senses should only be described when they play an important role in the scene. Authors who consistently throw in all five senses in each scene are usually writing filler. I see this most often in romance novels, and I think it has a lot to do with RWA. They're always stressing in their workshops how important it is to have all five senses in each scene. Bad advice, IMHO.

Ann Littlewood said...

I write mysteries set in a zoo and it turns out that most people respond positively only to NICE smells. Many people are repelled by reading about the smells of animals. This strikes me as rigid and silly, especially since the smell is only on paper, but there you have it. Minimize the manure. Pass on the pee. Skip the sweat. Or you take your chances.