Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What's That Smell? (An Interactive Exercise)

Writers strive for vividness. Vivid descriptions, vivid colors, vivid sights, memorable items in a room or setting -- something, anything, that will catch the reader's attention and put them there. In the book, in the room, in the story...

More often than not, the writer will go right for the eyes and neglect the other senses. "See what I see," the writer seems to say. But what that rationale is missing is the most powerful image-evoking sense of them all: The Sense of Smell.

We see more with our noses than our eyes when we read. Hit the subject right on the nose, so to speak, and you will paint 100 pictures with a single scent. Consider this passage:

"See here... this writer's den has a cherry wood desk with a hint of red skin underneath the surface brown. The desk is freshly dusted so it gleams and the red is no longer hiding, it is prominent. On top. An heavy glass ashtray sits in the upper right corner, cluttered with clumps of discarded pipe tobacco. "

What is this writer missing in conveying the scene of the writer's den to the reader? There are at least three olfactory clues in this passage that would convey the scene of the den much better if the writer was perceptive enough to pick up on them.

1. First of all, we know the desk is freshly dusted. Was it dusted with a lemon wax product, or straight ammonia, or a damp (perhaps musty) cloth? And how powerful is the smell from each -- what does it contribute to the overall smell of the den?

2. Also, we know the dusting brings out the red in the desk. But does the cherry base of the wood have any hint of the fruit scent left in it, and would it come out at all if the dusting product used was really powerful? Would the smells mingle at all, and what might that smell like?

3. Lastly, and most obviously, we know the writer was a pipe smoker. This is one of the most distinctive and distinguishable smells around, and it gives the reader an unmistakeable image of the den's owner: bearded, mid-40s or 50s; jacket with patches on the sleeves; professorial type who may or may not have a British accent. In this case, the writer has only to describe the smell left in the den by the pipe tobacco and the reader already "sees" the character.

Lastly, put yourself in the scene and decide which smell predominates, and which are secondary. Close your eyes, remember the scents and the character who owns the den, and breathe deeply. It should all come clear to you.

If you're interested, rewrite the above passage about the den scene and put in the smells to go with the sights and see how much better you can make it. Post your response to this posting. Let's see how many different takes we can get.

Bye for now.


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