Friday, April 8, 2011

Smells and how to use them in your writing.

We have plenty of words to describe other senses and sensations, but smell seems to defy words. The human sense of smell is not heavily developed compared to that of many animals. Still, it's a deep and rich sense, and it can enhance how you communicate, especially when you're crafting a story or describing a moment.
When we use smells in our writing, it can enhance the readers experience by tying them to the scene, giving them something to relate to that makes it feel real to them. Before you add smells to your WIP, there are a few things you need to do first so you can have the greatest impact. Well, you don't have to do all of these, pick and choose the ones that work for you.

The following is condensed from WikiHow

1. Identify your reason for describing the smell.
  • Do you want to capture the nature of the smell or the overall quality?
  • Do you want your reader or listener to recognize an unfamiliar smell based on your description?
  • Do you want to evoke a certain meaning or feeling in your reader?

2. Observe the smell. If it's possible and safe to do so, smell what you wish to describe. Pay full attention to it:
  • Remove distractions. Don't smoke or wear fragrances.
  • Take breaks. The sense of smell acclimates or becomes accustomed to a smell. Remove the smell or remove yourself from the smell for awhile if you stop being able to smell it or smell it distinctly.

3. Notice any words, images, feelings, or memories that the smell brings to mind. If you have any sort of gut reaction, pay attention to it. Make notes if you can, even if they're disjointed.
Example: Words that come to mind when I smell mud: damp, earthy, spring, mudpies, childhood, coolness around my toes, squishy, scummy fingernails, moldy

4. Notice descriptions of smells when you see or hear them.

5. Use adjectives.
  • Adjectives can describe the general, overall quality of the smell. Wispy, rancid, airy, musty, stale, fresh, putrid, faint, light, floral, and acrid are all adjectives that could pertain to smell.
  • Smell origins may take the form of a noun (the smell of leather) or an adjective (a leathery smell). The adjective may describe the effect where the noun describes a specific source.

6. Use nouns.
  • Be specific. Smoke smells different depending on where it came from. Can you tell the difference between smoke from a campfire and a wildfire? Between cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke? Could you recognize by smell burning rubber or a vehicle that was burning oil?
  • Be creative. What does spring smell like?

7. Use verbs.
  • Use verbs for the smells themselves. Smells can waft, distract, hint, permeate, suggest, confuse, conjure images, command attention, or intrude upon the consciousness.
  • Use verbs to describe the source of the smell. Here are some actions that you might associate with smells: baking, frying, digging, sweating, burning, rotting.
  • Visualize what the smell does. Does it creep into your nose? Wrap around you? Follow you? Bombard your nostrils?
8. Borrow words associated with other senses. Smell doesn't have a lot of vocabulary of its own, but many other senses do, and they can suggest the quality or nature of a smell.
  • Sight. Can a smell be bright or dark? Can a smell be pink or green? Can it be clear or hazy? Can it be fast? Slow? Sluggish? Smooth?
  • Sound. Can a smell be dissonant? Harmonious? Loud or quiet?
  • Touch. Can a smell be sharp or dull? Even or jagged? Smooth or rough? Heavy or light? Cool or hot? How would you physically react to the smell? Would you relax or stiffen, pucker, or make a face?
Example: Spring smells yellow/green to me. Makes sense, right? Spring, baby green leaves coming out all over, and sometimes in the south the air looks baby green because of all the pollen in the air. Those living in the south know about the thin (sometimes thick) coating of yellow powder that clings to our cars each spring.
    We get this much daily!
    9. Consider what feelings and emotions a smell evokes, especially if you are using it as a literary device. Smell can conjure associations with particular events or general thoughts or emotions.
    • Is the smell startling or jarring? Soothing or comforting? Earthy or natural? Chemical or antiseptic?
    • Smell is often strongly associated with memories, but this is only useful if you're describing the smell to yourself (such as in a journal) since you can't know what somebody smelled in their memories.
    10. Use Metaphors: A smell can't really grab someone by the nose or stab someone, but this might be a powerful description.

    Ok, do you know what comes next? I'm going to ask the question again. Yes, I am because the last two times I asked I didn't get any response.

    Do you want to help me build a Smell Thesaurus on my Descriptive Faces Blog? You will be credited for the smells you contribute and the post will link to your blog as well. Please, please, please?

    All you have to do is:
    1. tell me in the comment what smell(s) you want to write a thesaurus entry for,
    2. write the entry
    3. email it to

    I'll post it and then send you the information so you can share the post with your blog readers.


      1. Such a helpful post!

        I write books set in the American Southwest, specifically the Sonoran Desert. Smells are very important to describe because it can also help the reader to understand the place, even the season. Best smell ever: Creosote after it rains in the desert. :-)

      2. This is an awesome post. I'd never given writing about smells in my mss that much thought. I will now.

      3. I don't have a sense of smell, so there's not much I can really do. BTW, it was funny in one story I said Edinburgh smelled like something and a critter said, "That's not what it smells like!" Unfortunately she didn't tell me what it does smell like because I have no way of knowing.

      4. I remember when I was going to school in Moscow, Idaho, if we took a trip to Lewiston...I could identify where we were because of the smell that emanated from the Potlatch Fertilizer Plant and their pollution abatement pond.

      5. Liz, what does Creosote after rain smell like? Want to write it up for the thesaurus? Please?

        Stina, I don't use it a lot, but sometimes it adds just that extra depth to make a scene or setting feel real. Good luck!

        LOL, Rogue, sometimes not being able to smell would be a blessing. As exemplified by Micahel's comment. And baby diapers, rotting trash, sewage back up in the street, throw up after your kids eat hot dogs--wow, that is the worst smell EVER! You should ask the critter to tell you what it smells like, and then send her to me so I can post it on the blog.

      6. Good lord, you wrote a book about scent! This post should be separated into chapters.

        I use scent/smell in all my stories. It's an important sense. In fact, I have to be careful not to over-use scent in my descriptions. It should be sparse and potent.

        I find myself lacking most at the tactile senses like hot/cold, rough, smooth and so forth. I have to force my characters to experience tacticity, but scent, that comes naturally. I ~see~ it as I write, because I smell the world around me as I live.

        And don't forget how closely related scent and taste are. One cannot go without the other.

        - Eric

      7. That's an awesome idea! I wish I had some smells to suggest but my brain is fried. Good luck!

      8. Interesting topic. I do try to incorporate smells sometimes because I know I need to have more than sight, touch and sound. Wish I could help with your smell thesaurus but I'm already a bit overwhelmed. HOpe you find some great people to help. Sounds like an interesting idea.

      9. This is a great post! Describing smells uniquely can be tricky, but these are good suggestions how to do it. Very nice, Charity! :)

      10. Fantastic post! When I start my edit, i will be making sure I've used variety in sense descriptions to bring the scenes alive for the reader. Smell is very closely linked with memory too. I will definitely contribue to your Smell Thesaurus. I'll just have a think about what smells I'd like to describe. :-)

      11. The sense of smell is so closely linked to memory, that it would be a great way to hint at backstory or weave it in somehow. Great tips. I'm bookmarking!

      12. Hey, I linked to you this morning. Apparently we were thinking about similar things over the past few days :)

        East for Green Eyes

      13. This is a great post. I have a very bad nose (too many chemicals at work) and so I rarely use sense of smell in my novels. I might have to try sniffing some things out and adding in some smells.


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