Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Language of the Senses

For some time now, I've had a note on my desk that reads, "Blog about that comment about smell/language." There was a time when I knew which comment this note referred to -- one of you posted something interesting and should be recognized for it, even if I can't for the life of me remember which comment or commenter it was. (My brain has been a sieve all summer. Counting down until school starts again, and can I get an amen on that one?)

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)
  • adjectives
  • some other modifiers
Usually, when we narrate an action, we're doing it by accessing the sense of sight.
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.



Jami Gold said...


How long has that note been on your desk? :) I remember the group had a discussion just a couple of weeks ago about sound and how sometimes telling was needed to give the mood. (i.e.: Rising pitch in anger or in excitement?)

Whether that was the instigating post or not, this is a good point. What do you think of the method of adding an emotion to a description of a smell to make it more meaningful? (The smell of lavender reminded her of home.) Or what about adding an action? (The smell of fresh-baked apple pies beckoned her across the street.)

Neither of those examples help the reader imagine the smell like the way they visually imagine the scene, but it does allow the author to add other senses into the narrative. Is that better than nothing? Or not? Or is it actually preferable to handle smell that way sometimes?

Julie Harrington said...

I'm a fan of using scent in writing. It's one of the sensory details I actually like working with because it's a challenge to work in naturally and because it contributes so much.

How someone smells can attract or repel. How something smells will revolt the reader or make them mentally go Ahhhhh and relax. The problem is you never know which reaction you'll trigger necessarily because personal memory is triggered by scent. I may like that my heroine smells of lilies, but the reader might recoil because their experience with that scent isn't so pleasant. That mean old aunt who used to make them eat tripe *always* smelled like lilies. Ugh! She's a witch, I hate her!

And not everybody has touched old, dry bones so we (as writers) can only go so far in explaining how it feels to touch it, but almost everybody can relate to the earthy smell of pine trees, the lingering hint of cinnamon and sugar flowing from a warm oven, and the crisp, clear tang of snow in evening air during the holidays. I guess we often have "universal" scent experiences?

I think a huge part of the challenge of working with scent is that -- despite it being so prevalent in our day to day lives (this smells good, that smells bad, ew this is rotten in the fridge and has to go, ahhh the laundry is all fresh and warm and snuggly, the comforting smell that is our husband/wife/mom/whatever when they hug us that instantly makes us feel safe and loved and "home") -- nobody really puts into words what the smell triggers emotionally or in memory (memorially? LOL). It just IS. It's a very base, instinctive, subconscious reaction to a fleeting whiff of *something*. And sometimes we can't even put our finger on WHY we suddenly reacted that way to. We can, however, say that the green we just painted out bathroom reminds us of baby poo and has to go.

But the subconscious nature of scent is exploited by manufacturers a lot because they know we don't even think about these things and how they affect us because we're not acutely aware that they are even affecting us in that moment. Like...

The smell of chocolate improves memory retention

Chocolate chip cookies in a house that's up for sale so people smell it and subconsciousness think "this is home."

Lemon-scented cleaner is thought more effective than coconut-scented cleanser (even though the two products are identical except for scent) while coconut sells more sun tan lotion and lemon doesn't.

Scent is a huge arena in marketing and selling everything from the products you want to use to the stores you want to shop in to making you receptive to information. It's a fascinating field.


Edittorrent said...

@Jami, Yes, I think it's generally best to incorporate these kinds of descriptive details into an active, emotional narrative. :) I did a post on this a million billion years ago. Click "sense of smell" on the sidebar and look for really old stuff. Then we were talking about how to make scents active instead of passive. This time we're talking about the vocabulary of the senses. Related issues.


Edittorrent said...

@JT, I heard somewhere that the sense of smell is the most closely connected to the memory center in the brain. I wonder if that has something to do with the experience you describe. Scent does seem to trigger emotional responses differently, perhaps more directly, than other senses.

who burns lemon candles when she doesn't have time to dust, and isn't ashamed of that (much)

Julie Harrington said...

One of my favorite books on sensory details is Word Painting by Rebecca McClannahan. It's about writing more descriptively period, but her section and exercises on incorporating all sensory details (scent included) are terrific.


green_knight said...

For me, both 'skipping rope' and 'tapping his bat' are kinesthetic descriptions - I don't get a visual, I get a sense of movement. In both cases, the visual needs to be added: is this a 'my first rope' and she's blundering through, or is she so good that you wonder how she doesn't get her feet entangled? Is he playing in a backyard, a school yard, a big stadium? What's the weather like, is there a crowd?

The problem is that in first draft, I don't supply these details, which means my first draft does not translate well to other readers.

Anonymous said...

This is a timely post for me. I need to get stuck into some serious world building and I think scent is an invaluable tool :) Thanks for the tips!