Scent in Stories

Awhile back, I was walking down East 30th Street — on a block that’s mostly imported-rug wholesalers and Korean barbecue — when someone opened a door, and whoosh! I was no longer in Manhattan. I was in Jamaica, surrounded by giant damp ferns, flowering blue mahoe trees, and lizards skittering along sandy stone walls.

Blue mahoe trees and glistening ferns don’t grow on East 30th Street, and there isn’t a lot of sand there, either. (Lizards? Maybe.)

So, what sent me reeling back in time to a family vacation I took when I was 5 years old?

Grapefruit juice mixed with sugar, with a hint of coconut oil. Smell.

“Helen Keller once called our sense of smell ‘a potent wizard that transports us through time,’ and she was right,” writer Stephanie Feuer said at a conference I attended last summer. “It is a really powerful writing tool, and yet it is the most under-used of the five senses.”

Maybe you’ve heard (or experienced) how memory and scent are entwined because their neural processes are so closely linked in the human brain. It’s so much more than that.

Feuer, who is writing a book about the science of smell, says research shows that scent memories are more intense emotionally, and more vivid, than memories triggered by our other senses. Smell can dredge up deeper, older memories than ones excavated in conversation. And smell is the sense most likely strap you into a time machine and send you to Jamaica.

Don’t you want to harness this superpower for your writing? Of course you do.

Good news! Feuer has some tips.

First, scent is not a single sensation. It arrives in stages, and it’s stacked in layers. You want to distinguish the light whiff that hits you first from the “heart note” you smell only after the first ones fade from the “base” note that embeds itself in your clothes and follows you home.

Next, fit the scent into a category. There are at least ten (including woody, minty, pungent and decaying), and many of the categories have subcategories.

Last, Feuer said, “Don’t forget that one of the layers of smell is emotion.”

We’ve rounded up a few examples for you where writers use smell to summon memory, develop characters, or set the mood for a scene, which you can read here.

Once you read them, it’s your turn: Think of a time when a scent clobbered you in the street and sent you back in time. Describe the experience in layers. What hit you first? What lingered the longest? How intense were the different notes? What categories does it fit into? And what emotions did it stir up? Use your answers to write a scene that’s layered, and pungent.

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Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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