Senses in Writing: Smelling the Invisible Scents

Scooby and Shaggy

Scooby and Shaggy

The usage of scents, aromas, odors, and smells in books is very interesting.  In a visual medium, you see a person’s reactions and that helps you figure out what’s going on.  In a book, you need to be told this.  Yet, an author may say something smells horrible and the characters never react to it.  Other times, the sense of smell of every character is so acute that they find an invisible assassin by tracking a silent fart.  It’s almost like the we either forget that the nose exists or mistake it for the most powerful weapon at our disposal.  I blame Wolverine for this.

My favorite use for the sense of smell comes from food scenes.  Many of us probably remember cartoons where a delicious meal grows that long trail of scent.  Then the hungry character floats after it.  Well, we probably do something similar when we’re famished and dinner is smelling good.  If anything, children and pets are quick to react.  It’s such reactions in a story that can help reveal the quality of food.  Physical reactions to smells can include drooling, rumbling stomach, or even a casual compliment to the cook.  I would definitely say that these scenes are dominated by smell and taste instead of the other senses.

Another common usage for the sense of smell is tracking.  When a story has dogs or heroes with superhuman senses, the ability to follow scents tends to be a focal point.  You don’t really have to describe the smell in these situations, but it becomes a physical being as it is followed.  Almost as if the scent is a supporting character and is in opposition of those following it.  This goes for terrible stenches too.  You have to remember that anything with a strong sense of smell will react poorly to something that reeks.  For example, you might grimace at the odor wafting out of your filthy gym locker.  A character with superhuman senses might double-over and vomit.  (I’ll be touching on superhuman senses at the end of the week to go over a simple pro and con of each one.)

Some tips to evoking the sense of smell in writing:

  1.  Show character reactions and make them appropriate.  If something is delicious then have your hero lick his lips or do something.  Same with horrible smells.  This will help the reader get more into the sensation.
  2. Giving characters, items, and monsters trademark aromas can help with their characterization.  For example, imagine a dragon that smells of coffee, cinnamon rolls, and wood smoke.  You establish this in a scene where the characters are not present.  In a later scene, they can pick up on this smell and be in the dark.  Yet the reader will know what is coming and be anxiously waiting for the dragon’s arrival.
  3. This is a strange tip, but it might have to be said.  Food smells when it rots.  Certain diseases involve decaying flesh and have a smell.  Cigars and cigarettes give off a smoke that not everyone enjoys.  Simply keep in mind that so many things emit a scent and you can use that to your advantage.
  4. It’s said that the sense of smell is the most powerful memory trigger.  You see it a lot in romances where a character catches a whiff of familiar perfume and the past comes flooding back.  This isn’t something to be overdone, but it is a viable way of revealing a story’s history.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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21 Responses to Senses in Writing: Smelling the Invisible Scents

  1. L. Marie says:

    Really good points, Charles. And I sometimes forget to have characters react to smells, though the smells are mentioned. But recoiling or mouth watering–very good reminders of reactions.

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    • Thanks. I actually forced myself to do it by having a character with an acute sense of smell. It helped me think through that sense. It’s a tough one too because you never hear of people having to rely solely on their nose.

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  2. ioniamartin says:

    This is a really good post and something that I think authors tend to forget about in their quest to make work seem realistic.

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  3. danielfbowman says:

    You’re right–smell is so powerful.
    “Show character reactions and make them appropriate.” This is a great idea–then the reader sympathizes instead of just reading about a description.

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  4. MishaBurnett says:

    In several of Tim Powers’ historical fantasies he describes magic as having a particular odor, like hot iron. So when a character suddenly smells a kind of burnt metal smell with no obvious cause the reader knows that somewhere nearby a spell is being cast, even when the character who is smelling it has no idea what it means.

    Olfactory hallucinations are also a common symptom of some neurological disorders, such as epilepsy. Michael Crichton’s “The Terminal Man” would always complain of some terrible smell just before he went into a berserk rage. Crichton uses that to chilling effect by having a psychiatrist talking to the character during one of his lucid moments. When the killer suddenly breaks off in mid-sentence and asks the psychiatrist, “Do you smell that?” the readers knows that she hasn’t long to live.

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  5. Sue Archer says:

    Thanks for a great read, Charles! This also made me think about the opposite – pointing out that there is no smell when you expect one (for something spooky and unnatural).

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  6. C. Miller says:

    I really don’t have anything of worth to input here, but I just wanted to say that I’m enjoying this series of posts. 🙂

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  7. Bastet says:

    Good points Charles … it is interesting how smells seem to escape us … hmm no pun intended 😉

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  8. Scoooooby Dooooby Dooooo! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) 🙂

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  9. Pingback: Challenges of Writing About Beauty » Cities of the Mind

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