“The first thing I notice is the smell: of leather, wood, polish with a slight citrus scent.”E.L.James: Fifty shades of gray
It takes E L James a page to describe Christian Grey’s “chamber of torments” before she moves forward in the plot. She begins her decided description with the smell of the room. When I look up this passage, it seems much shorter than when I first read it. This is probably because the first time I read it, a whole universe of images associated with those smells immediately opened up. Not only do I read about the smell of leather, but I also instantly associate objects that give off that smell. Similarly with wood. This is how our brain works. It associates familiar things.
Granted: James’ description is not overly literary. And yet she has grasped an important principle of sensual writing. Smells are often the first thing we notice about a new space. That’s why it makes little sense to put such a description in a later place in the text. Except, perhaps, when a new scent breaks into the setting, either when a fire breaks out, or because one of the protagonists enters the room with a strong personal odor/perfume.
Especially in sensual literature, it is important to give smells their due. Sandra had already pointed this out elsewhere (see Smells and Effects). And the best place for such a depiction is always when our protagonist is exploring something new, be it a space or a person.
In her book, Writing Vivid Settings: Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors, author Rayne Hall pointed out this principle. She says, “A single sentence about smells can reveal more about a room than several paragraphs of visual descriptions. This is helpful if you want to keep your descriptions short.”
She reminds us that smells immediately evoke emotion. By working with pleasant or unpleasant smells, we can very quickly evoke positive or negative feelings in the reader. Let’s revisit E. L. James’ opening. In just a few words, she paints a picture of wealth (new leather), comfort (at least the smell of wood always has a very calming effect on me. It’s probably an effect of Ikea socialization) and cleanliness (citrus polish). Immediately we have the tension between unsettling richness and reassuring solidity, in which Ana currently finds herself anyway. Supported with the knowledge: Everything is clean here. Summarized in little more than three olfactory notes.