Exploring the Senses: Smell

A series looking at the five senses and how to use them to immerse your characters and reader in a story. This essay deals with smell.

Image Credit: 
© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Sight

Smell is a powerful and diverse sense that is mostly used as a tool to describe the environment. In reality, however, it’s powerfully linked to our emotions and memories, and is an underused sense, in my opinion. A smell can bring out an emotional response or force us to recall memories in a way that other senses can’t. Utilising the power of smell effectively in your writing will improve it as well as allow for a much greater level of immersion for the reader.

Your sense of smell is tied to the mind in a way that isn’t really seen within the other senses. Smells are tied to memories much more strongly than visual or auditory input. The smell of an ex-lover’s perfume, the scent of freshly-cut grass or stale cigarettes, they all have ties to memories that may have an emotional connection to us. There’s even studies to suggest that smells a baby experiences in the womb through their mother influence the types of things that they enjoy later in life. Many animals also release pheromones to communicate with others; these behavioural cues are detected by noses.

Imagery for Empathy

You can use smell to create an emotional bond between your readers and your characters.

Inside the car, it smells like hibiscus. It was his mother’s idea: something subtle, she told him, but fresh. Something alive. As the man pulls from his driveway he is grateful, just this once, for his mother’s meddling. He breathes in. Already, the sweet smell is working on his nerves

Diamond Head by Cecily Wong

What Wong does here is use scents as a vehicle to give the reader an insight into a character’s emotional state during one particular scene. We feel that sense of security that a familiar smell can bring along with the character. The smell used doesn’t have to be one that we are personally familiar with. We all have a scent that provides us comfort and it can be used in your writing to create a strong empathetic reaction from your reader.

While scents have an amazing ability to bring us a sense of security, they can equally invoke a sense of dread or dismay. For instance, I can’t smell a hospital without it bringing out a negative emotional response. These kinds of things, as well, are incredibly personal and individual. It’s certainly worth including details like what smells bring them comfort and which ones bring them dread into your characters.

Relation to Environment

Smell can be used to create a very clear picture of the environment that your characters are in.

The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Smell has an incredibly powerful ability to transmit us to a location. You only have to mention the smell of freshly cut grass and we’ll be transported, in our minds, to places where we’ve experienced that before. By making use of the cacophony of smells that the real world assaults us with you can create a very clear picture on the environment that you’re trying to create. What Suskind does here is exactly that, clearly laying out the smells the character is experiencing and it resonates with us as readers.

Smells can also be used to give a greater amount of information about your settings. You can easily detail the general area, but it doesn’t take much to include information about the country, time in history or even socioeconomic state of the area that you’re describing. Suskind’s extract is clearly set in a time in history other than our own. The general feeling of the scene gives the impression of the past because of the use of smells.

Interpretation of Emotion

Smell can be used to create an emotional reaction within your reader.

She has come to believe the homes of sad or hateful people smell different. When people have sadness or hate inside them, it comes out in a miasma. Dr. Hammond’s house smells like a form of slow poison has been hanging in the air for years.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfield

In this extract, Denfield uses quite powerful imagery to create a picture of a group of people, using smells as the vehicle to do this. By using the reader’s emotional connections to smells you can create different emotional responses from them, depending on what you want out of the scene.

By using a metaphor to describe the smell, it allows the reader to fill in the blanks with their own experiences. This helps to make the image stronger and resonate more clearly with the reader.


Smell itself is incredibly subjective. As well as the emotional ties we all individually place onto smells, the actual sense is different in every person. Many factors can influence how well a person can smell and if the incoming smells get tainted with other things. Smoking, for instance, impacts your sense of smell negatively. It’s definitely worth including the differences that individuals have in your writing.

Smell is also one of the more forgiving of senses. You can get away with being very vague with your descriptions and it still works to its desired effect. Smell really does give you the freedom to include as little or as much information as you want, you can include everything in a metaphoric sense and still create a very powerful image in a way that you can’t with the other senses.


Your five senses are an incredibly powerful and diverse set that, when used, can add a great deal of depth and realism to your story. The real power in the senses, however, is how interlinked they are. Your sense of taste is greatly influenced by your sense of smell; your sight can help with your hearing. By using them together you can create something within your writing that invokes a sense of realism in your readers. You don’t have to describe everything in terms of the five senses and some things you will want to add to varying degrees, depending on how important they are. But having the senses in your back pocket will greatly improve your writing.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

Join the Discussion

Please ensure all comments abide by the Thanet Writers Comments Policy

Add a Comment