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How to Add Realism with Taste and Smell

February 23, 2012 by Kiersi

We writers are intimately familiar with the senses. Most of our metaphors involve some form of touch (“the sun felt like a thousand tiny kisses on my skin”), and nine out of ten descriptions involve sight (“he looked distraught”). Hearing is almost always involved in action (“he gasped as my fist sunk into his diaphragm”), and characterization of dialogue could barely happen without it.

Today I want to talk about the lesser-used senses of smell and taste. Taste is usually reserved for two types of descriptions: kissing, and food. (Maybe more if you’re writing erotica or cookbooks. Or an erotic cookbook? That’s kind of a good idea, actually.) I find that smell is rarely used, unless the situation specifically warrants it, such as a room full of dead bodies, or, as has become more popular, when a YA female character is describing the scent of a male love interest. This seems to always involve a natural smell, like pine/grass/sunshine (seriously, I read a character describe her crush as smelling like sunshine), and in paranormal books, some kind of supernatural smell (such as vampires carrying around the smell of blood).

But these two senses can be used for so much more! For example: Snow can smell fresh, but it can also carry smell down from the sky. If a volcano has erupted lately, perhaps the snow smells of ash. Or after a battle, the snow could be pink, and smell like blood. Smell can also help define a character’s edges, even a character that isn’t a romantic interest. In particular, I love when a writer describes an old person as “smelling like sour milk,” or a baby as “smelling of shampoo and lemon powder.” What if a character is overweight and has poor hygiene? He could smell like an old burrito or a sweaty foot. Even better is a person close to death, for reasons of illness or old age: illness has a distinct smell, if you’ve ever walked into a room when the inhabitant has the flu. It’s sticky and sweet, but sour at the same time. People who are sick long term, or who cannot move themselves, often carry the smell of bowel movements.

It’s pretty disgusting, I know, but it’s gross because it’s true. These kinds of sensory descriptions allow you to imagine exactly how ill that person must be, and you feel a pang of guilt knowing that the sick person can’t help it. You want that. You don’t want your description of a dying uncle to bounce off, you want it to hit home.

I’m sure you’ve heard the trope that unique descriptions are far better than clichéd ones; on that same line of thinking, to create a unique description, you must seek unique ways to do the describing. Have you ever tasted the air in a musty old room? It’s kind of nasty, actually; smell and taste are unfortunately linked, where sometimes just having your mouth open at the wrong time gives you a big, tasty whiff of whatever is around you. Think of taste in other situations besides food and kissing: taking a shower, for example. Soap tastes awful–rather like ammonia and chalk. What about falling flat on your face? You’re in the middle of talking and bam, dirt and bugs and tiny little rocks are in your mouth. Maybe you’ve washed up on shore after a terrible shipwreck and everything tastes like sand for a few days?

Also remember that food doesn’t always have to taste good. If I’ve learned anything about cooking, it’s that soup is often bland, meat is overcooked (think of words like “charcoal” and “wood chips”) or undercooked (“lukewarm” and “bloody”), bread is stale, and the only thing that makes it all better is condiments.

Just think of this as some food for thought the next time you want to really immerse your reader in a description. When everyone else is talking about the rustling leaves and the tree canopy dappling the forest floor, you can describe the scent of rotting pine needles, the musk of peeling bark, or the taste of sweet green air in your mouth!

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