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.
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.
- 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.
- In your mind, revisit different times in your life.
- Your best friend’s house from childhood
- Family homes
- 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?
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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.