How Does Your Writing Smell?

Rich, immersive descriptions can be a good way to boost the realism and depth of writing.  It can pull the reader into the world you’ve created.  Too much description can slow your story’s pace and spoil your reader’s need for imagination, which is why I think it’s important to make descriptive sections short instead of sparse and impactful as opposed to comprehensive.

My plan to improve my own descriptions involves the sense of smell.

When building a scene in my head, I focus a great deal on what it looks like and a lot on what it sounds like.  To a lesser extent, I consider what it feels like tactilely.  But it hardly ever crosses my mind to include the scents associated with the scene.

The Smell Collector, a web serial whose protagonist is obsessively dedicated to the science of smell, exemplifies the effectiveness and power of olfactory imagery.  In his site’s header, the author writes:

The experience of smell is the closest thing we have to intimate human contact without actually having it.  A woman’s perfume, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a little bit of diesel fume, and some spearmint gum might come close to someone’s first kiss, for example.

That second sentence allows the reader to construct their own scene for that first kiss out of nothing but scents.  People tend to associate smells with their own memories and experiences and emotions.  You can put those four odors (perfume, cigarette, diesel, gum) into anybody’s brain and come up with an imagined location that can be both vivid and memory-driven.  That’s a power that’s much harder to exercise with just images and sounds.

Though smell can be versatile in the things it can conjure from a reader’s imagination, it can also be very specific.  By mentioning a whiff of something like an apple pie or a thunderstorm, you can give your readers a singular, identifiable smell.  It’s something that doesn’t need to be imagined.  When you describe a scene, a reader might have to remember what color the walls are and where the characters are located and plenty of other spacial and visual details.  Mention a familiar scent, however, and the understanding is immediate.


You can’t smell that book but you know exactly what it smells like, don’t you?

I think scents are underutilized in most fiction.  Any tool so powerful as that one should at least have a presence in a writer’s arsenal.  My hope is that, by employing olfactory imagery more often, I can create a more engaging atmosphere for my readers without trying to bore them with unnecessary details.



  1. Here Here! Engaging the olfactory sense is the quickest way to create intimacy between the reader and the environment, and it doesn’t take much at all. It just takes a little creativity.

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