Writing relies heavily on telling the reader descriptions: clothing, appearances, landscapes, cities, movements, clues for time of day, and such. But there is so much more to the world of your story than this!
Plus, it is telling and isn’t this supposed to be “show don’t tell?”
A good story pulls the reader into the world by sharing the experiences of the characters. The best description is what the main characters sees. But real experience is beyond sight!
This writing tip series is dedicated to deepening the setting of your story by utilizing senses other than sight. Because we rely on it far too much as writers! Bring your character and world to life for readers with immersive descriptions.
And first up is smell.
This one is easy, almost as easy as sight, which makes me wonder why it isn’t included a lot more in fiction. Smell can alert characters to danger, help a character fall in love, create a new challenge to be faced, as well as a new facet to character or creature descriptions.
Want to know how? Let’s dive in to smell in fantasy worlds…
What You'll Learn
Think of your favorite childhood place. Close your eyes and tell me what it smelled like. For me, it is the forest around the house where I grew up. In the spring, it smelled of earthy mud. In the fall, it was dry leaves and herby ferns.
Already you should begin to see the use of this sense. It can help tell the weather with the smell of clean air after a rain, or a season through earthy spring mud or dusty and dry fields of fall. Don’t just splash through puddles! Smell the raw earth and strong scent of pines. Characters should smell the woodsmoke of the camp fire as well as feel the warmth.
Cities will be full of good and foul smells, depending on how clean and advanced you make your story. Refuse and worse, especially outside of taverns, can disgust socially privileged characters. While strange spices and roasting meat or baking sweets can entice others to embrace travel.
And, of course, new areas have smells. Farmlands, especially vineyards and orchards will hold the smell of flowers or fruit depending on the season: sunshine on grapes, the smell of oranges on a breeze. Grasslands that stretch to the horizon smell of everything from earth to dry herbs. Deserts smell like minerals and dust and swamps of damp earth and sulfur.
Livestock from goats to horses have a distinct odor. I’m sure dragons do too! The leather of a good saddle, the joy of soap after days riding through mud and dust, the hay stored in barns, and the sooty smell of towns, all evoke a deeper connection than simply saying what is present and relying on sight.
Every time you describe a setting, include at least one smell. Have a character react to it with a cringe at more rain or a yearning for something to eat.
Character & Creature Descriptions
Sure, you mention the love interest with a description of her hair, eyes, dress, or sword. But what does she smell like? Roses with a lingering tang of the metal blade she was just fighting with?
Whether a good smell or bad, an odor can also designate a character just like a characteristic trait such as actions like running hands through hair or a scar. Think of the prince who always smells of herbal soap or the knight who smells like stale beer and sweat. What about the monk who keeps bees and smells of beeswax and mead? Or the new recruit from the farm who is teased he smells like a goat. Characters have noses too!
Pungent odors for dangerous creatures like trolls add to the frightening description, especially if it involves bad breath while it is trying to eat someone. But if you stop to think of it, what does an elf smell like? Apples and elderflowers? The more you can pin down the smell of the world and the characters, the more real it becomes to both you and the reader.
The character returning home smells smoke and realizes it isn’t quite right for woodsmoke. Or remember those dangerous creatures like ogres that have the strong stench? Characters might be holding their breath fighting them, but they are going to be on guard if they smell them while on the road, out of sight but upwind of where they ride on suddenly nervous horses.
Smells alone can be overwhelming and create an obstacle of their own. A bog that smells so foul you have to burn your clothes after you cross it… assuming you don’t faint and drown is just one.
A scent on the wind can be a warning or a welcoming, either eliciting strong character emotions that will captivate readers and pull them deeper into your story. So use them!