Sunday, December 16, 2007

Big No-Nose

I, Theresa, as Co-Queen of This Here Blog, hereby declare a moratorium on scents doing things to noses in fiction manuscripts. This prohibition includes but is not limited to:
--Any scents, smells, odors, fragrances, et cetera, et cetera
--Which invade, permeate, fill, soak, assault, et cetera, et cetera,
-- Any character's nose, nostrils, nasal passages, sinus cavities, or any other part of the proboscis.

This ban is permanent, final, and irrevocable. Examples of prohibited senteces include:
The scent of cement filled her nostrils; or
The odor of cavalry horses charged his nasal passages; or
The smell of hairspray teased his nose hairs.


These examples may be a bit extreme, but this is exactly the problem with having an odor act upon a nose. The verbs can create the illusion that the fragrances are doing things which are both impossible and ludicrous.

Scents are passive. They don't do things to us or to any part of us, even though they may stimulate a response. So, then, how do we communicate a fragrance in good writing?

There are three methods for that: the direct method, the descriptive method, and the active method.

The Direct Method:
Have the character smell it directly.
She smelled soap.
He caught a whiff of her perfume.

The sentence structure is simple: subject-verb-direct object, maybe with a prepositional phrase or other tidbit to dress it up. But as a general rule for this approach, hit it and move on. Use a verb such as "smell" or a close synonym to it.

The Descriptive Method:
You can take a few more liberties with your verbs if you're incorporating scent into a descriptive passage. Imagine a romantic heroine escaping a crowded ballroom for a moment's peace in a solitary garden.

Not even a breeze disturbed the tranquility of the garden. Moonlight glittered off the small pond's surface, a reflection of a reflection. The fragrance of sweet tea roses hung thick in the air, though she couldn't see the bushes anywhere.

Here, the fragrance in the context of a setting works because even with active verbs, description is static enough not to conflict with the way scents operate on the physical plane. In other words, we're not suggesting that the scents are doing things that violate the laws of physics.

The Active Method:
But you want your prose to be dynamic. Fresh. Inventive. You want to incorporate the sense of smell into active scenes, and you want it to have an impact on the reader. So how do you do that?

By treating the scent as a stimulus which creates an active response in the character who smells it.

The scent of vinegar jerked her back to consciousness.

There are two actions contained or implied in this sentence. First, she smells vinegar. Second, she jerks back to consciousness. The second action is caused by the first. These kinds of linked actions are an effective way to include the sense of smell in your prose.

Does this make sense? If not, ask your questions in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Great post, Theresa! I will be doing a "find nose" search on my mss when I get home. I'm almost afraid of what I'll find! :)

Edittorrent said...

Smells are really powerful in life-- we can smell danger, etc-- but it's very hard to paint an olfactory picture in fiction. Less is more, I agree!

Renee said...

I know I'm guilty. Oh boy am I guilty. I've prided myself on being able to use all the senses, I never realized that I could be dragging it down.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic blog! I'll be checking back here often! Best of luck, ladies! :-)

Anonymous said...

I love this entry! I was once in a crit group that insisted I must change the lines
_The kitchen stank of burnt piecrust_
_The stench of burnt piecrust assaulted her nostrils_

I quit the group the next week. No, but seriously, I couldn't stand that crazy talk. I told them that rephrasing was florid and ridiculous. The next time anybody tries to assault my nostrils, I'm filing charges! That sounds more like a fight, as in *fistnose*, than a scent. (You know . . . *facepalm*, *fistnose*, *revolvertemple*, and so forth.)

But for some reason, people want me to hoosh up some perfectly fine lines like that. I attempt to tell them that "It started raining" is idiomatic in English, but they want to make up some awful sentence that "lets the reader figure out that it's raining without having the ~Scaffolding~ (whatever that is) of the sentence there to distract them." I always like to vote on the side of clarity.

Or am I misreading you? I don't know what they mean by the buzzword "scaffolding," anyhow. That might be an interesting subject for one of your entries. (An example of "removing scaffolding" from a sentence is, apparently, changing it from "He jerked his hand back from the fence, realizing his palm was scorched" to "Painted wood scorched his palm." I think the first phrasing makes sense on first reading, whereas I had to re-read the second version to see what was really going on. I also hate it when we omit the article. Why can't it be "The painted wood"?

But then that's why I'm part of the great unwashed unpubbed, I suppose. Please don't take offense--I'm just throwing out a few cool ideas that y'all might discuss, even if you contradict me (*GRIN*)!