How does a writer describe taste and smell?

How Smell WorksKaralee’s Post #24

I find describing taste and smell a challenge.

I also have an interest in medicine and biology so if you are want an introduction to the mechanism of how we taste and smell you can look at:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/smell.htm and http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/taste.htm

When I think of a taste or a smell I automatically try to describe it through something else that has a similar taste or smell. This is effective when I’m trying to describe a mixture of things such as a cake, a summer day in the woods, walking into a grocery store or a shoe factory, or driving by a dump or going into a gym locker room, etc.

But what if the item I’m trying to describe has its own unique smell and taste, what I think of as a primary smell or taste?  For example many fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, many flowers, or pine trees.

Take coffee.

coffeeHow do you describe how it tastes and smells? Like coffee, right? We can give it adjectives such as its color, temperature, or if it is bitter, nutty, or burnt or moldy, and even what type it is such as a latte, cappuccino, etc.

But the essence of coffee is coffee.

So if our readers have never smelled or tasted coffee I don’t think I could describe it in a way the reader could really experience and understand its taste and smell.

The same goes for bananas. Or apples, or garlic, roses, or onions. And on and on.

When you think about it, much of what we write relies on the reader experiencing something similar to it before. Even in science fiction and fantasy new concepts and special powers can be introduced, but they are generally described through familiar sensory words so the reader can relate to the new worlds and concepts albeit in unique ways.

There are so many sensory words that can be used in multiple combinations to describe our settings that there is no need for readers to ever be bored, but I do believe readers have to have experienced primary tastes and smells in order to understand them in our writing.

What do you think?

Another writer has blogged on this topic and has accumulated many smell words to refer to: http://andrea-mack.blogspot.ca/2012/02/words-for-describing-smells.html

There other ways to use smells and tastes in writing. They are linked to memory and can be used in characterizations. For example, the smell of roses can remind an old woman of her daughter’s wedding many decades ago. Or the taste of burned toast can remind a man of his mother’s cooking.

Verbs are inherently used in the description of smells and tastes. For instance a smell can waft, drift, linger, or permeate. Both taste and smell can also be associated with its source such as baking, frying, rotting, etc.

A person’s reaction to a smell or taste can also add to its description. This includes one’s face puckering if something is bitter, smiling when eating a cookie, running from a burning building, fear at the smell of a gas leak, etc.

 smelling cakesHow do you describe taste and smell in your writing?

Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vsorathia/3549251418/sizes/l/in/photostream/

9 thoughts on “How does a writer describe taste and smell?

  1. Intriguing questions Karalee. Smell is supposed to be our deepest survival sense, and taste is really a subset of smell. No wonder smell triggers such visceral reactions. And, you’re right, impossible to describe except by simile unless the reader has experienced it.

  2. You may not be writing for someone who doesn’t know what coffee smells like or what bananas taste like. Such people may not be part of your targeted audience.

    I instinctively avoid descriptions unless details of what is being described is essential to the plot. I’m inclined to “describe” the smell of coffee in terms of how it makes a character feel, or what, if anything, it makes him/her do.

    • Thanks Sherrie! I’m glad you are finding some of the 5Writer’s posts interesting.
      And thanks for reblogging this one too!

  3. Pingback: 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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