Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sensory writing

I recently saw an episode of the List, an entertainment television program, where they were discussing how aroma influences behavior.  The example that stood out most in my mind was the effect of smell on a person’s choice when buying shoes. In the experiments they took identical shoes and placed them in identical showrooms.  In one they sprayed a specific (don’t remember what it was) scent and the other they did not.  People were willing to pay up to $10 more for the pair of shoes in the showroom with the pleasant aroma.  This kind of aroma therapy has been capitalized on in the work place where in some Chinese factories they spray the scent of lavender blossoms during breaks, because they found workers were more productive after the break when they smelled lavender.  A few other examples included the scent of strawberries made people perform better on tests, and smelling peppermint increased track athlete’s performance in competition.

This episode of the List came on the heels of a “Pretty Little Liars” by Sara Shepard reading marathon.  One of the things that struck me about Sara Shepard’s writing is that she is a very sensory writer with the sense of smell being dominant.  In her books characters seem to make associations based on smell.  When they have a memory, the distinctly remember the scent.  Every place that is described seems to have an associated or a characteristic smell.  And that is pretty powerful.

Sensory writing appeals to the senses, not just the obvious ones like sight and sound.  The readers not only get an idea of how the settings or characters look physically, they get the texture, and they get smells that they themselves associate with things and experiences.  Sensory writing transforms you to the place and you could smell the honeysuckle, you could hear the faint voices in the background as well as the birds chirping loudly, the rhythmic thumping of the shovel, you could feel the goose bumps on the character’s arms and the rough jeans chafing their skin; you could smell the character’s fear, feel the character’s love or anger or anxiety without the author being overly descriptive.

Liane’s last post Local Color deals with capturing the atmosphere of a setting; the unique color of a place.  This is how it is accomplished, through sensory writing.  We incorporate things from the outside world through our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.  Therefore the best way to capture the essence of a setting is to appeal to all of those senses.  And just like the aromatherapy that was addressed on the episode of The List that I saw, smell can be a very powerful sense to appeal to. One of the reasons is that people make emotional associations with aroma, even if the aroma is unpleasant.

In my home country of St. Kitts, there is a lovely fortress set on a hill called Brimstone Hill that sticks out from the central mountain range.  I had a lot of great memories picnicking there, exploring the fortress with its intricate engineering and being transported back to a time in history; seeing the lovely Caribbean Sea in the distance like a diadem sparking in the sunlight and looking at the lush green vegetation of Mt. Liamuiga.  But to get to the hill, you have to pass through an area infused with the noxious sulfurous scent of Brimstone; you know, that rotten egg smell as if someone just farted.  As unpleasant as the smell is, every time I get a whiff of it, I am reminded of all the pleasant experience I had at Brimstone Hill.

Sensory writing is powerful writing.  Are you a sensory writer? 


Unknown said...

I loved your last sensory connection-- something potentially awful that has wonderful associations. I too have memories like that. When I was little, we'd spend portions of the summer with my relatives in Rhode Island. While I remember the awful dead-fish smell of being by a wharf, it's associated with such fond memories of the ocean-- salty sea air and the constant rush of water as waves lapped the sand, and even the hot sandy feel between my toes. Wonderful!

Unknown said...

Thanks. And that is why writing about scents give those kinds of strong imagery because readers connect smell to experiences

Charles Gramlich said...

I love good sensory writing. It's extremely important to me as a reader. I try to do it myself as well, and even use smell, even though I actually completely lack the sense of smell.

Carol Mitchell said...

I can definitely relate to this. I am working on a YA novel, and reminiscing about my own adolescence I recently remembered a certain fragrance, the scent was in the air the first time I danced with a boy (too much information?). I can use this to recall the importance that young people can attach to even the most minute details of their lives.

Of course I know that Brimstone Hill smell well. Even mentioned it in Adventures at ....

Unknown said...

First time you danced with a boy huh, Carol? Brings back memories too :).

When I read your book Adventures at Brimstone hill, reading about the smell took me back there. It meant a lot more to me, than it did to my daughter whose only experience at Brimstone Hill was the once we went there for a brief (very brief) visit.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

What a lovely post! Your description of Brimstone Hill brought it to my memory so vividly. Made me think I'm long overdue for another visit to St. Kitts.

I love sensory writing that places me in a setting so well, it's like I'm really there.

Liane Spicer said...

Sensory writing... vivid imagery that incorporates all the senses... I strive for it in my own writing.

Your association of a bad smell with pleasurable memories is intriguing. Reminds me of something my sister has said many times--she's an equestrian and insists that the smell of horse crap relaxes her and puts her in a good mood. Her horse-y friends say the same thing. Just goes to show how personalized sensory perception can be.