There has been a lot of ink spilled on the concept of showing and not telling when writing a story. It isn’t a new concept, but it is always worth revisiting. When writing, descriptions are necessary to immerse your reader in your world or to at least let them know where the action is taking place. They can set the mood and illustrate points.
However sometimes when we describe a place we can be far to litteral.
The cafeteria had white brown and green flecked tiles that were eight inches square. The tables were all the same long size, each with six round seats attached to either side. The seats alternated in color, some fire engine red and others crayon blue. The walls were composed of larger ten inch tiles in a taupe color and rows of eight foot long fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling on chains.
While there is nothing wrong with the description, in fact it accurately serves as a blank setting. It has no emotional bend to it. We can’t tell how our narrator feels about the space or thinks about it. In all fairness, he could have no real feeling about the room, he could have just popped his head in to see if anyone was there as he made his way around the building. For your story, you may need the cafeteria to be neutral (emotionally speaking) territory.
However, it can also serve as more than just a you are here dot on the map of your story. First of all, we have to figure out what is going on, why we are here and how our lovely MC feels about this space.
Let’s say our main character is a reporter named Alice. She’s in this lunch room just after school has ended and she is there to meet someone who is going to walk her through the lunchroom and it’s inner workings so that she can write an article about budget cuts and the way they affect school lunch programs. While the meeting is mostly on the up and up, our intrepid reporter thinks her guide for the day may have a few secrets to pass her when no one is looking, leading to a deeper, juicier story. She is hoping this could be her big break.
So now that we are feeling Alice’s excitement and we know that is going to affect how the cafeteria is seen, let’s close our eyes. We are Alice taking a step into the cafeteria and possibly the story that will make our careers. We take a deep breath. what do we smell?
We smell the industrial lemon scented floor cleaner the janitorial staff just used to clean the floor as they remove the stains of the day from the building.
We smell the scent of plastic that those round chairs attached to the table always seem to give off.
We smell the glitter and glue from the Go team go poster some school group put up on the back wall.
We even smell the remnants of the last lunch served that day.
So we use these scents. We don’t have to use all of them in our story, in fact using all of them can bog down the story just as much as measuring the floor tiles. For these examples I am going to overuse them to show the point. editing would slim them down a bit to just the needed elements.
Alice stood in the door to the cafeteria and smiled at the poster pinned to the wall, the scent of glue and plastic/metallic tang of the glitter competing with the freshly cleansed scent of the newly polished floor. It reminded her of past student body elections and the victories that were hers. She knew she would be victorious here as well. She stepped away from the door, moving further into the room, looking for her contact, Carl. As she moved, the glitter and glue scent faded, the industrial cleaner filling her senses. It was a hopeful scent that spoke of new beginnings. She hoped it boded well. A good story was exactly what she needed after the last debacle.
Alice reached the center of the room and inhaled. Dancing around the edges of the lemon scented cleaner were the remnants of today’s special. The tang of tomato and the rich back note of cheese and spicy pepperoni let her know that today was Pizza day. It was always her favorite day when she was in school and made her feel even better about the meeting. The scent of the long eaten pizza fluttered around the room like a whispered secret. Her smile turned calculating. She suspected Carl too had secrets. She knew she had to be subtle, but she was sure that in the end she could get him to whisper them to her.
Conversely Alice could have bad memories of the space or of his time in a similar one and she could be there for an entirely different reason.
Alice stood in the doorway to the cafeteria. The glue from the glittery victory poster made her vaguely nauseated. she stepped into the room quickly thinking that as St. Brutus High hadn’t had a victory in twenty years, the poster was overly optimistic. The scent of glue faded as she moved, but it was replaced by the plastic tang of the seats and the industrial lemon scented floor cleaner. The floor was still damp in spots with the cleaner and the lemon scent wasn’t enough to disguise it’s industrial nature. She knew from experience that this was the same cleaner now used in both prisons and insane asylums. Dark thoughts started to rise and she concentrated on the other scent skittering around the edges of the industrial. Her nose identified it after a few sniffs. Green beans, the kind that came in a giant can. They were served here recently and she could tell from the sad remnants clinging to the beige walls that they were boiled down to mush. The scent was as familiar as the cleaner and for exactly the same reasons.
Using your nose in a scene is another way to set the tone and to show the space without actually going into details about the size of the tiles. Perhaps the tiles are important to your story, if so use them. No one is saying you can’t tell your reader the details of the tile. It is your story and you use what details you feel your story needs. This is just another way of looking at it that might enhance your eight inch square times.
Clearly both of these scenarios could be fleshed out, tweaked and adjusted to suit the story. And for this post I concentrated on scent rather than anything else. Sound could be added and her rubber soled shoes could squeak on the wet tiles or her hard soled heels could click purposefully as she walked, or tap irately as she waits for the late Carl. Using all of your senses can help you flesh out your scene dramatically. Just don’t bury your reader in details. Showing too much can be overwhelming as well, remember to look at the details in editing and think about which ones you need.
Scent can also help you change the mood as your character enters your story. Alice may go from glue and glittery thoughts of her student victories, to hopefulness with the floor cleaner, good omens of the pizza, and then after her annoyance at being stood up by Carl, she may decide to take a peek in the kitchen and be assaulted by the heavy scent of blood as she finds Carl dead on the floor with a meat cleaver in his skull. The find may then change her mental associations with industrial floor cleaner and possibly even pizza.
The olfactory sense play a huge role in our memories. Often time scents remain in our minds long after visuals have faded. It can be a very useful tool in showing your world to a reader instead of simply telling them about it. It can also help you to see a place that you are unsure about when you are writing.
Does the planet Axion Q82 have a high level of methane in its air so that even if it is breathable, the scent of the methane remains and your main character thinks he has landed in a world that smells of farts? He could be amused, annoyed or even insulted depending on his personality and the reasons he was sent to the planet. Or perhaps Axion Q82 is a lush jungle smelling of damp earth and sultry flowers. Again his personality and situation will determine how that is viewed.
The nose is a very helpful tool when writing. It can help you as a writer see the world you are writing more closely and possibly in a slightly different way. it can make details seem more realistic if you are writing a fantasy world that comes straight out of your imagination. It can help you set the tone of the scene, and it can help you in the eternal struggle to show and not tell. Even if you don’t use all of the details, a little scent can go a long way.
Sometimes you need to give your eyes a break and see with your nose.