Archive | 10:20 AM

Book Sense: Smell and Taste

30 Nov

Welcome to the last installment of the Book Sense series. We’ve already covered touch and sound and today I’ll cover the last two, smell and taste.

Here are the four I want to focus on today:

  • Unpleasant smells
  • Smells that invoke memory
  • Taste of something unknown
  • Tastes that invoke a sudden emotion

Yet again, please add more in the comments as you see fit.


Unpleasant smells: We tend to notice smells that are extremely pleasant or extremely unpleasant. I think the unpleasant ones are more striking and tell more about a story. The smell of decay can depict death. Fires have a distinct smell. There are a lot of negative smells that can help set a scene without having to describe it. The smell of a sweaty sock is bad but what about a neglected patient in a mental institution?

Smells that invoke memory: There are smells that will always remind me of things in my past. The laundry detergent my host mom used in Mexico is one I still remember eleven years later. Lilac will always make me think of my parents’ house and the old lilac tree in the yard. I think these memories can be very powerful and if used sparingly (maybe once or twice per story), can be very effective.

Taste of something unknown: I remember my first time trying Vegemite and (apologies to any Australian readers) how salty it was! I think descriptions of a new taste can help frame a character’s reaction. I think this is especially important in fantasy if an invented substance is being tasted. What does Mars vodka taste like if they don’t have potatoes?

Tastes that invoke a sudden emotion: Tasting bile in your mouth is a sign of great discomfort or dread. A mouth watering is a sign of hunger. A dry mouth can be fear. There are a lot of ‘tastes’ in our mouths that can show how a character is feeling without having to state it outright. And it’s always better to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’

There we are! Are there any other smell or taste sensations you think are important (or overused) in writing? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Until next time, write on.

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