November 19th, 2021

How to Write the Sense of Smell

by Ellen Buikema

Great writers make their stories authentic by allowing us to experience what their characters hear, see, smell, taste, and touch—capturing the senses so we are fully involved. Adding sensory details about smell into your writing creates a stronger story bond for your reader.

Scent memory is potent.

Memories fade as time passes, but a faint whiff of a loved one’s perfume can send your mind’s eye smack into a scene from a forgotten past. Sense of smell is a person’s most robust sense. You can be in a familiar place with a blindfold on and your nose will let you know where you are.

  • The sense of smell is more closely linked with memory than any other sense.
  • It brings emotions to mind. We are attracted to each other by smell.
  • It helps us survive. A foul smell warns us of danger, like when we smell food gone bad or smoke choking the air.

Sensory unit in the classroom.

I introduced my young students to lessons on the five senses. For the sense of smell, I used those old black plastic film canisters with tiny holes poked in the lid so there was no way for the students to peek at what they were going to smell.

Every canister was labeled with a number. Each child checked out the canisters one at a time to avoid copycatting. Their answers were noted and discussed later during circle time. I enjoyed watching their facial expressions during whiffs. Everyone smiled at the cinnamon oil.

One child smelled my neck and said, “You smell like my auntie. I don’t know why.” Must have been the cocoa butter.

Writers can use the sense of smell to show a character’s background or to move a plot forward.

Say your main protagonist is a child in an orphanage trying to come up with a way to run away from her situation. A fire breaks out somewhere in the building. She smells smoke, alerts whomever she can to the danger (she is a good-hearted character). Recognizing her chance to leave in the chaos, she grabs her belongings and runs, thereby moving the story forward.

Ways to develop a sense of smell in writing.

Smelling danger

Our brains are wired in a way that makes us hyper-alert to unfamiliar sensory information, including smells. If you want to unsettle you characters, add in rotting, chemically, goosebump raising smells into your story.

Practice:

  • After spending time indoors, step outside for a bit to be in a different environment.
    • Our sense of smell adjusts and after a while there are scents you won’t notice.
  • Walk back inside and take note of what you smell.
  • Open up the refrigerator. Do you have a science experiment brewing in the rotter? (In our house that’s the drawer where food is forgotten and goes to die.)
  • Think about how certain smells, known and unknown, might help to define your characters.
  • Write a paragraph about the smells your character loves and hates.

Smelling recall of another time, person, or place

Smells can cause flashbacks to warm, wonderful times or a place of horror. The same smell can bring joy or pain dependent upon the individuals experience at the time they were exposed to that particular odor.

Some people love the smell of lilies. I cannot stand them. To me they reek of death. I don’t know why, and probably would need hypnosis therapy to figure it out.

Practice:

  • In your mind, revisit different times in your life.
    • Your best friend’s house from childhood
    • Family homes
    • School
    • Library
    • Movie theaters, drive-in and indoors
  • What smells do you associate with those places in time? What emotions?
  • Write a paragraph about the odors and try to call to mind the emotion without calling it by a specific name.

Many authors use sensory writing well.

The following quotes are from writers who use the sense of smell effectively.

“The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.” Bruce Barcott, Weed the People


“We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working. I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.” Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

“Chili dogs, funnel cakes, fried bread, majorly greasy pizza, candy apples, ye gods. Evil food smells amazing -- which is either proof that there is a Satan or some equivalent out there, or that the Almighty doesn't actually want everyone to eat organic tofu all the time. I can't decide.” Jim Butcher, Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files

“I emitted some civetlike female stink, a distinct perfume of sexual wanting, that he had followed to find me here in the dark.” — Janet Fitch, White Oleander

“So when I closed my eyes, when I drifted into a half dream and found myself in that underpass, I may have been able to feel the cold and smell the rank, stale air, I may have been able to see a figure walking towards me, spitting rage, fist raised, but it wasn’t true.” Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” James Joyce, Ulysses

"After a while, I stretched out on one of the benches and closed my eyes. The kerosene smelled like lacquer, and I kept feeling waves of nausea. My bones were cold. I could isolate the icy scent of pine trees that sneaked through the walls. Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks." Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually), Thoughts on Faith

“…ripe piss, ancient cabbage, dead and rotting rat — was on Danny's skin, in his hair, in the fibers of his suit; Varian inhaled that scent like a penance.” Julie Orringer, The Flight Portfolio


“There is little difference between the Zulu warrior who smeared his body with Lion’s fat and the modern woman who dabs hers with expensive perfume. The one was trying to acquire the courage of the king of beasts, the other is attempting to acquire the irresistible sexuality of flowers. The underlying principle is the same.” Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Other Links we love:

If you want to make your readers feel what you’re describing, use the power of scent. Understanding how compelling the sense of smell can be, use it to entice your reader.

What sense do you use when writing? What writers do well with sensory writing? Do you have any examples you’d like to share?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image Photo by samer daboul from Pexels

20 responses to “How to Write the Sense of Smell”

  1. That was a fun exercise. Thanks!

    I went through my debut novel with the search function, and found 54 instances of using smell, odor, aroma, wafted, or scent. I have a specific step in my process which has me consider 1) the senses the character is using, and 2) the senses I hope to elicit in the reader for every scene. The only duplicates were pine-scented cleaner and the outdoor smell of real pine trees. Not bad.

    I make an effort to consider all the senses, regular and ESP and kinesthetic, but only choose a couple at a time for a scene. A laundry list is appropriate very rarely.

    Here's an example of a sweater left behind by Andrew O'Connell at Kary's house when he stayed there, one of two similar fisherman's Irish sweaters his mother knit for him. It has to go back with his friend and manager. The last sentence is in italics in the book as a direct thought.

    Her fingers dared. She pulled the rough heavy sweater into her lap, tidied the folds, tucked the long sleeves neatly into the bundle. The faint aroma of lanolin thrust her backbrain into memories of nursing… Such a long time ago. She restrained herself from burying her face in the woolen bulk. She refused to name the other scent. It will have to go back.
    Pride's Children PURGATORY.

    I picked that one because of the double use of smell.

    • Kris Maze says:

      Hi Alicia,

      It's interesting that you even use a sensory check as part of your writing process. 54 references is impressive. I'm wondering whether you search using the words you mentioned: smell, odor, aroma, wafted, or scent? That's a great tip to figure out how smell is represented in one's manuscript.
      Thanks, Alicia!
      Kris

      • Yes - I searched with all the words I thought might find me scent references, and was pleased to find so many.

        I have a damaged brain (ME/CFS), and the only way I can write is to have a detailed written process - a specific set of prompts/questions that I've developed since I started to write. That way I can compartmentalize each and make sure it at least gets considered for a scene.

        If curious, here's the link: https://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/left-brain-right-brain-hemisphere-wars-and-writers-block/

        I know scientists no longer consider the left/right dichotomy a physical one, but it still works for me as a metaphorical one, switching from a logical to an intuitive approach and back in a regular alternation when I get saturated on one or the other. It probably makes me slower than I might otherwise be, but it compensates for my deficiencies enough to write complex fiction.

    • I love your example, Alicia.
      It pulls me right into the scene and I truly feel for her, especially as a mom.

      I hadn't thought about it before but a balance must be had between too much and too little sensory information in a scene. Thank you for bringing that point up!

      • Or possibly you're writing pure literary fiction? And the point IS the sensory information?

        I don't - I'm too wedded to plot and characterization - but it is a viable option, and there are some beautiful examples.

      • I learned that one from Sol Stein: two to three sensory details seem to be about right, and one should be familiar and one fresh. Not a rule so much as a guideline, because sometimes the best effect is to pile on more, sometimes to select one perfect detail. Or you start to sound like a robot. That's one of the things I love about writing, reaching for that balance.

  2. Thanks for this, Ellen. I use smells often in my writing--it seems to be the most underutilized sense by new writers, IMHO. Great links, too!

    • Hi Karen,
      I'm glad the links are useful!

      My early writing had a serious lack of sensory information. Critique partners modeled better work, showing what I'd missed. Adding sensory details makes a big difference.

  3. Kris Maze says:

    HI Ellen,
    I loved all the examples, especially the Anne Lamott one: Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks. Her contrast to kerosene and lacquer is powerful.

    Thanks for the reminder to incorporate this sense into our writing. It can ramp up the intensity or deepen the solitude, all with a reference to smell.

    Kris

  4. When I left home for college my mom gave me strawberry-scented stationery so I could write her. To this day, the smell of strawberries makes me homesick.

  5. Terry Odell says:

    Excellent advice. The sense of smell IS a powerful one. I had to go through my current ms following Alicia's example. I found 17 uses of 'aroma', 13 of 'smell' and 6 of scent, and a smattering of others.

    My takeaway from this post: Tie the sense of smell to an emotion for more power. My current wip is set on a cattle ranch. The heroine is a city girl, so she's going to notice the smells. She also spends time with the ranch cook--more opportunities to work in the sense.

    • Ooh, Terry you'll have a lot of fun with this. I can tell already.

      I grew up close to Chicago and never experienced the intense scent of cow patties from a dairy farm until middle school.

      You'll have to let us know how your heroine deals.

  6. Eldred Bird says:

    Thanks for this one, Ellen! I love to use smells in my writing. You're right on the money about them being a powerful memory trigger that can suck a reader right into a scene. One of my favorites from my own work comes from my first book, Killing Karma. It describes James' first step into a thrift store.

    A quick twenty-minute drive brought James to his first thrift shop experience. Walking through the door, the realization hit him; this was not going to be his typical shopping trip. The first thing to jump out was the smell. It wasn’t the crisp linen and perfume scent he encountered in the department stores he occasionally shopped in with his mother. It reeked of something a little more . . . well . . . old. The smell reminded him of the house where the aging neighbor lady used to care for him while his mother worked. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

  7. What powerful examples you used, Ellen. Wow. Has me looking through my manuscript for those hits. And I think I did okay. a total of 93 references to aromas, scents, smells, stench, and stink. Helps to have your characters explode a stink bomb. lol

    • Ellen says:

      A stink bomb. Wow. I'll bet there were some interesting reactions to that Lynette!
      I was concerned that I overdid the examples. LOL. I guess I did okay.

      I've started reading through each scene and noting where I need more sensory input. The editing process seems never ending.

      • Yes. The reactions were the fun part.

        You did more than okay with examples. And while I agree the editing process seems never ending, I strongly suspect you'll add the right amount of sensory input and find the end.

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I think when you can describe the smells in a book and the reader is transported to the place or reacts to the smell, you've done your job.

    My books are more apt to have smells of florals, food, and perfumes/colognes, etc...

    denise

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