How adding smell and taste to a manuscript can draw a reader deeper

One of the hardest things at times to describe in a novel is the sense of taste and smell. They are probably the least mentioned for that very reason. We may say it was a delicious meal of roast, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Or the stench was overwhelming in the closed-off room. We leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  We all have our ideas of what that roast tasted like and what constitutes a rank smell.

Taste

We better serve our readers when we can create the smell on the page. It helps them go deeper into our stories. Let’s take these two examples and see what we can do. (When I say we, I am expecting some of you to add your own creation in the comments.)

The meal mentioned above seems pretty common, and delicious is a relative term. I do not find anything delicious about Jalapeno peppers so if they were in the mash potatoes, I would disagree 😊. If the meal is essential to creating your story world or to revealing something about your characters, you need more than delicious.

What does this delicious roast taste like? Taste includes texture.

The Dr. Pepper marinate gave the melt-in-your-mouth pork roast a touch of sweetness. Betty’s mash potatoes reminded Leo of Ma’s home cooking, just a few lumps, and extra pepper. He’d never had green beans laced with bits of bacon, but the flavor made him scoop out another serving. Betty’s food erased the last ten years of loneliness with a meal laced with memories of his childhood.

Okay, not great but you get the point. Texture was added with lumpy potatoes. For Leo that made them delicious because his mother’s always had lumps. Can you see how I tried to give you a bit about Betty’s character? She doesn’t cook with wine, rather soft drinks. Cooking is her love language for sure.

How would you show the reader the delicious meal? Add it to the comments.

Let’s look at the smell reference now.

The overwhelming stench in a room could be anything from stinky shoes to a corpse. The sense of smell is often described with similes.

Jeffrey’s socks would stand like sentinels after he’d worn them for two weeks. Mother used tongs to capture the pair and marched the offending objects to the trash. Her other hand covered her mouth while she made retching noises.  My brother swore his favorite football team did better if he never changed his socks. And I swore if I had to sleep one more night breathing in the scent of raw sewer I would toss his bed out the window with him in it.

Again not great, but you get my point. Can you smell the socks?

Now it’s your turn to paint a scene to describe an overwhelming stench coming from a closed-off room.

We don’t want to fall into purple prose, overwriting descriptions. There are moments where the senses of taste and smell are important in crafting your story. If you understand your character and your setting, then you’ll know which of the five senses will best show the scene to the reader.

In the taste example, we see Leo as a lonely man who loved his childhood. And as I said it appears Betty’s love language is cooking. These could be the beginning of a romantic connection or a mother-son relationship. Food would play a big part in this story no matter what genre it is because I have given it as a connection between these characters.

In the smell example, Jeffrey is superstitious and oblivious to the grief it is causing his family. His long-suffering brother is at his wits’ end. I’d like to know what other ways these brothers are different. Is he the long-suffering younger brother or the patient older brother? This appears to be a smell example for the moment, but in a YA book stinky feet could be referenced throughout the story.

Okay, share your rewrites with me in the comments or post a favorite sensory description from a favorite book or a novel you’ve written.

I’d love to see your examples and it’s a great way to wake up your brain for your writing projects.

 

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Tasting the air: senses heightened during the lockdown

The wind blew hair in my face as I walked beside my husband. The breeze sent the scent of impending weather I breathed in and tasted the coming rain. If you’ve never tasted the rain you haven’t been paying attention to the world around you. A sea breeze tastes salty while rain carried in the air tastes and smells of dirt and clean. My senses are on high alert now longing for a fresh perspective after being confined to the house. I’m smelling, seeing, tasting, feeling things in a new way. This is a great thing for a writer. Come walk with me.

Revived senses

After being lockdown for months I am even more aware of my surroundings. A bird’s song draws my eyes to the tree as the bird flies overhead. I hear a dog’s joyful bark in the distance. All the dogs in my life run through my mind and I wonder what bred the barker might be.

My neighborhood is a nice place to walk and my senses long for something different than the sounds of the mantel clocks chime, the smell of pizza in the oven, and the feel of the upholstery on my favorite chair.

I am consciously aware of the squirrels chattering in the trees. The lawnmowers’ distinct sound reminds me everyone will be busy in their yards before the evening comes. The smell of fresh-cut grass brings back memories of working with my dad in the yard. Yardwork brought him so much joy. The one thing he was excited to share with me.

Smell and times past

The air fills with the smoky smell of burning wood. Fire pits do the job of the long-ago days of burn barrels because open fires are against city code. My son was nine when he played archeologist as he dug into the dirt where a burn barrel had once been. He found antique bottles that he still treasures over thirty years later.

Sight paints a picture

Neighbors greet us as we walk. Most are waving acquaintances. A young man basks in the sun in a lawn chair in his front yard. Reminding me that so many aren’t yet working. A pang of sadness pricks me. I pray for the unemployed. His friendly voice as we exchange a few words speaks of hope.

Weather attacks our senses

Another day while we walked in the humid afternoon that sucked the energy from me, my steps slowed, sluggishness showed my age. I’m envious of the small children who ride their bikes in the driveway oblivious of heat.

Smell and Taste evoke memories

The smell of barbeque made my mouth water and my heart sad. The lockdown prevents my three sons from coming around anytime soon to grill a variety of meat each telling the other how they marinated their chicken.

Yardwork and senses

On Saturday hubby and I till the soil. The black damp mud clings to my shovel making turning the dirt more of a challenge. The fresh dirt smell clings to me, something familiar and normal after months of strangeness. I separate bulbs to replant. Even wearing garden gloves I can feel the shape of the bulbs between my fingers. My sister will be so proud to hear I took her suggestion. She is a wonderful gardener like our late father. She finds it relaxing I just find it drudgery.

Hubby and I near the end of our day of yardwork by spreading mulch. The cedar mulch between my fingers reminds me of Guinea Pig bedding and the sweet sister who is long dead who loved them so.

Outdoors revives creativity

These walks and times outside have sparked my creativity as I pay attention to the sensory stimulation all around me. When I return home after one of these walks I notice the whir of the ceiling fan that I took no notice of all morning. I listen to the echoed, watery sound of my husband using his electric toothbrush in the bathroom. I still haven’t master letting the brush do all the work after scrubbing my teeth with a manual one all my life. Charley is always more particular in the things he does. Not so much perfection as organized. (See what I did there? Gave you a peek at my husband’s personality through the sound of an electric toothbrush.)

Senses in storytelling

See how the senses around me stir up memories. The characters in your books should have the same sorts of memory. The manure and hay odor in a stable might remind a woman of the sweet palomino she had as a child. Watching a leaf drift down the river as the chilly wind permeates her jacket and chills her flesh could bring a sense of foreboding or loneliness. Maybe the cold wind excites her with the prospect of coming snow and ski season.

Write down the senses you experience. Then you can use them to deepen your character’s experiences. In return, your readers will be even more invested in your story as they smell, hear, see, taste, and touch along with your characters.

 

What senses bring memories to you? How would you describe them?