How to Use the Sense of Smell in Your Writing


This blog post is part of a series about why we need to use sensory imagery in our writing. As we learned in my introductory post about sensory imagery, the sensory details draw readers into the setting and allow them to feel a character’s existence. These details must be specific, concrete, and appeal to the senses, whether seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. 


In this post, we explore the sense of smell.


Scents can evoke powerful memories.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the senses is how they span time. Our senses connect us intimately to the past in a way our ideas cannot, and the sense that does this more powerfully than any other is the sense of smell. 


Regardless of how unexpected or fleeting, a scent can open the floodgates of memory. A whiff of Coppertone might bring you back to summers on Cape Cod: the grit of sand stuck in your swimming suit; strawberry ice cream on your tongue; fireflies blinking in the tall grass; the drone of a foghorn in the night. A particular perfume might evoke memories of playing in your mother’s closet, slipping your tiny foot into her shoes.


When I was growing up, we lived in Europe, and whenever we traveled back to the States, we went by ocean liner. Some years ago, my brother and I were walking through a basement corridor connecting two municipal buildings when, at the same time, we looked at each other and said, “the ship!” I can’t tell you what that smell was, possibly a combination of building materials and cleaning products, but whatever it was, it was distinctive enough to trigger the same memory in both of us.


Six fascinating facts about the sense of smell.

– We have the ability to detect over 10,000 different odors.

– We can distinguish between the scent of a male and a female.

– We breathe about 23,000 times a day 

–  We smell with every breath we take. 

– It takes approximately five seconds to complete the average breath, and in that time, molecules of odor flood through our system.

-Breaths come in pairs, except when we are born and take our first breath, and when we die and take our last. 


Each of us has a smell that is as unique as our fingerprints. Meat eaters smell different from vegetarians, children smell different from adults, and smokers smell different from non-smokers. People also smell different due to health, diet, medication, and even occupation. Think about this when creating your characters.


Helen Keller maintained she could tell what someone did for a living simply by smelling them, that the odors of their occupation clung to their clothes. She says, “When a person passes quickly from one place to another, I get a sense impression of where he has been—the kitchen, the garden, or the sickroom.” Think of how your clothes smell after being at a fish restaurant or one that does a lot of deep-fat-frying. Think of the clues you can drop about a character’s behavior/actions/whereabouts through the odors that cling to their clothes.


Writers have embraced the sense of smell throughout history. 

Many writers are acutely tuned into the sense of smell and use it to bring their characters to life. Colette’s flowers carried her back to childhood gardens. Virginia Woolfe had her “parade of city smells.” Joyce had memories of baby urine and oilcloth. Dostoevsky wrote about “Petersburg stench.” Flaubert’s rhapsodic accounts of smelling his lover’s slippers and mittens. Walt Whitman’s praise of sweat’s “aroma finer than prayer.” Milton’s description of the odors God finds pleasing to His divine nostrils and those preferred by Satan.


Using the sense of smell can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.

While our sense of smell is incredibly precise, it’s almost impossible to describe in words something to someone who hasn’t smelled it before. Try describing the smell of sheets dried in the sun, the interior of a brand new car, the difference in the scent of a yellow rose from a pink rose or a white one, the smell of a baby fresh from a nap. 


While the connection between smell and memory is strong, the connection between smell and language is weak. When we see something, we can describe it in all its nubby detail and colorful glory, but what are the features of a smell? 


We either describe smells in relation to other things – flowers, food, objects – or we qualify them with adjectives such as – disgusting, lovely, intoxicating. Think about it. Try and describe how your lover, child, or pet smells. It’s not easy,  but you can do it. 


Now it’s your turn to see how the sense of smell can enrich your writing.

You can use the prompts to explore your memories or apply them to a character—you’ll be amazed at how much you discover. These prompts work well for both fiction and nonfiction. 


How to start:

Set your timer for 10 minutes. Write the prompt at the top of your page and begin writing without thinking—go where the very first thought takes you. Keep your pen moving. Breathe. Don’t stop until the time is up. Suspend judgment. Be curious. Have fun!



Write by hand. Writing by hand connects the brain and body and, I believe, the heart. It’s especially helpful in getting those first thoughts onto the page.


Prompt #1

What’s the most unusual smell you (or your character) have ever encountered?


Prompt #2

Go outside for a while, and when you come back inside, describe how your house smells.


Prompt #3

Think of a smell you (or your character) strongly dislike and write about the emotion it evokes.


Prompt #4

What does a hug from your favorite person smell like?


Prompt #5

Describe the scent of your favorite color.


Thank you for allowing me to bring you to your senses. Let me know how it goes in the comments box below.

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2 Responses

  1. Your blog is wonderful, Kathryn. Your photos stir emotions. Your words invite inspiration.

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I’m Kathryn Kay, the founder of A Writer Within. I offer support and inspiration to women writers through one-on-one coaching, editing services, and week-long retreats in Tuscany. My focus is on getting writers into the creative flow, beyond their internal critic, and their very best stories onto the page. If you have a writer within, let’s set her free!

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