Oh, well. If any of you remember posting a comment about writing the sense of smell, please pipe up in the comments so I can credit you appropriately. Luckily, I do still remember what I wanted to say. This is all about the words we have at our disposal to narrate the physical senses. Our language doesn't treat the senses as equals, and this can sometimes present writing challenges.
We have an extensive vocabulary to describe what we see:
- concrete nouns
- verbs of action
- verbs of appearance
- verbs of being (sometimes)
- some other modifiers
The little girl skipped rope.
Bobby tapped his bat on home plate.
When we read these words, we get a visual image from them. Each of us may get a slightly different visual. Doesn't matter. The point is that most of the words in most narratives will draw on the sense of sight. Our language is rich and evocative and packed with possibilities for describing what we see.
If you don't get what I mean, try an exercise just for kicks. Write 150-words about a woman grocery shopping for ingredients for a dinner party. Now write the same piece from the point of view of a blind man. What is the experience like when you strip out the sense of sight? How does it change the narrative? What words can you use with the sighted woman that you cannot use with the blind man? There are probably quite a few changes that have to be made, if only because what we see is such a large part of what we narrate.
Look again at our sample sentences about the kids on the playground. Either of these are suggestive of the sounds, too -- the slap of rope against asphalt, the thud of wood against plastic. We see the images first, and perhaps we also hear.
Sound creeps into the narrative in many ways through action verbs, but there are more obvious uses of sound, too. Dialogue is spoken by characters, and if you're anything like most readers, you "hear" those words differently in your silent mind as you read them. (How many of you shifted your inner ear to accommodate the quotation marks around the word hear in that sentence?)
Then we have words we use, usually verbs and adverbs, to describe the quality of the character's speech. People yell and whisper. They speak throatily or brightly. This manner of conveying sound qualities in speech has fallen out of favor, but we still have the vocabulary to accomplish it.
Then there are the fleets of nouns to describe non-spoken sounds -- hoots, thumps, scrapes, rustles, and so on.
If you look at the vocabulary set for vision and sound, the words directly describe the sensual impression conveyed. When you read the word hoot, you get a direct and instant knowledge of what is being heard. When you read the words little girl, you get a direct and instant knowledge of what is being seen. No need for translation or further interpretation.
Not so with the sense of smell. For narrating scents, we have a blended vocabulary, you might say. Some of the words are direct -- pungent, acrid, cloying, and other similar terms all describe the native characteristics of a smell.
But this vocabulary in English is not as well developed as the vocabulary for sight and sound. We just simply don't have the words to accurately convey a sense of smell as directly as with sight and sound.
Take, for example, cloying. We know our response to a cloying scent. We don't like it. It's invasive, and not in a pleasant way. But is it sweet like cheap perfume? Or disgusting like roadkill? Either of those scents can be cloying, but they're cloying in entirely different ways.
We can work around this as writers by drawing on comparative language. When I asked the questions above about cloying, I used the word like both times. This is no accident. Our vocabulary for the sense of smell almost demands this kind of usage if we're going to be precise about what we're trying to convey. It's not always necessary -- we do have some good, robust, precise words for smells -- but this particular sense does often demand an indirect approach in the narrative.
There are other work-arounds. Sometimes context will control the way a reader interprets a word meant to describe a scent. Yeasty, for example, can be used to describe the smell of bread (a pleasant smell) or the smell of an infected body (an unpleasant smell). If the word is used in a hospital ward, the reader will know which way to lean.
The bottom line is this: Pay attention to the way you're using language to evoke a sense on the page. Not all senses are handled alike.