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Writing sense of smell – sensory writing 2

Sensory writing is a great way to bring your readers close, whatever your writing form – fiction, poetry, scripts or copywriting. This article suggests how writing sense of smell can help create a more vivid sense of immersion in your fictional world.

Other senses such as touch and hearing are powerful in their own ways, but the sense of smell is special. It’s thought to be the oldest mammalian sense, and hits deep into our brains.

So using smell in writing is a powerful way to stir your reader’s senses, and bring them closer.

Smell is also closely linked to memory, the sense of taste, and our enjoyment of food.

And it’s intimately connected to our breathing. Some smells can hit us so strongly that they make us choke and recoil!

Here are some ways to develop your use of smells in writing.

Smells and danger

When you’re writing sense of smell, look out for its dramatic potential. Can you use it to drive dramatic action? Will it perhaps trigger a fight-or-flight reaction in one of your characters? Or will it lure them into seduction by the wrong person, or cause them to lose their way (or their mind!) or otherwise get into danger?

Unusual smells often have an association with danger. That’s because our our brains wiring makes us super-alert to unfamiliar sensory information. That includes smells.

So if you’re writing a thriller, fantasy, scifi or any world that’s new or unsettling to your characters, add smell to your writing repertoire.

Think of pungent smoke, the sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh, strong chemicals that hit our throats and make our eyes water.  

Note: we quickly get used to smells after some exposure. Even the most terrible smells can lose their potency after a while. And beautiful perfumes stop being noticeable after a few minutes of habituation.

So context is important. Maybe you can link the smell to a countdown situation or ticking time bomb?

Smells that signal danger are often linked to novelty or unfamiliarity. How can you use this in your fiction scene?

Sensory writing practice:

Refresh your nose-palette, to make familiar smells unfamiliar. To do this, go into a different smell environment – outdoors in the fresh air, for example – and then return indoors. What do you notice differently? Free-write and try to capture the smells and scents you discover.

Use your nose and rediscover the familiar smells of your surroundings.

What might strike someone coming into your home or work for the first time?

Consider how familiarity and unfamiliarity with certain smells might help to define your characters. Write a paragraph about your characters’ favourite smells, and smells they dislike.

Smells and memory

Another approach to writing sense of smell is to consider the power of memory.

Smells can cause instant flashbacks, catapulting you back to a long-forgotten memory – whether a delightful one, or an awful one.

What’s more, smells that are happy or neutral for one person can be traumatic for another, if they trigger an association with unhappy memories. So they might become a reason for dramatic action – say, one character wanting to avoid a smell, or impose a smell on another.

For example, I can’t stand the smell of lilies because of a hospital stay when the ward was full of vases of flowers. Their pungent stench was all the worse because of the lack of fresh air, and hospital chemicals. So if I were ever in a room full of lilies, I’d want to open a window, fan the air or cart them away down the far end of the corridor!

But I love the smell of hot tar, which I associate with a tarred garden shed I used to play in as a child. So I might want to stop and breathe on a tarred road, fixate on roadworks, or love hot city days that others want to avoid!

However, someone with a traumatic experience in a tarry shed might feel very different.

Writing sense of smell effectively is a chance to tap into these deep-seated emotions. How can you exploit your characters’ individual reactions to smells?

Sensory writing practice:

Brainstorm smells from your past, and free-write on what they are and how they make you feel. Think about childhood, school, adolescence, relatives’ homes and places you’ve visited.

What emotions are associated with those smells? Write a paragraph about the smell and try to evoke the emotion without calling it by name.

Do any of them evoke a particular place, time or era? Consider how you might turn one of these triggers into a story.

Think like a perfumier or whisky taster

Perfumiers and wine, cheese, food and coffee tasters have a whole vocabulary of flavours related to their product areas. They’re usually called “notes”, and have different classifications.

The five main perfume families are floral, fresh (citrusy), oriental (warming), woody (amber, cedar, sandalwood) and fougère (meaning “fern” – lavender, bergamot).

Sensory writing practice:

Research olfactory words from one of these areas and gather inspiration for your work in progress. Use them to deepen the description or a character’s perceptions.

Consider the sound as well as the meaning of the words, and notice how they feel when you read them to yourself. Try “citrus”, “musk”, “caramel”. Try olfactory words in a scene involving food.

sensory writing - touch and texture
Sensory writing 1 – touch and texture

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writing sense of smell - sensory writing 2
Writing sense of smell – sensory writing 2

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Sensory writing – sounds, music

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Smells and breathing

Smells aren’t just about notes and fragrances. Since we also breathe through our noses, smells are closely linked to feelings of comfort and discomfort. A violently pungent smell can make us hold our breath or stop breathing. It can even make us reel.

Someone once offered me smelling salts to try. I had no idea what they smelled like, but I knew that people wafted them under the noses of Victorian ladies, to help them recover from fainting. I intrepidly had a sniff, and nearly leapt in the air!

Smelling salts are ammonium carbonate – a kind of ammonia that hits the back of your throat and sears a hole in your airways. I often wonder what sort of expletives came from those Victorian women! They certainly wouldn’t come round gently.

Sensory writing practice:

Consider the intensity of specific smells, and their physical impact on the body and breathing.

Do they clog or dull someone’s airways? Do they heighten the senses, and make the person super-sensitive? Maybe they affect the eyes, the mouth, the throat? Or cause nausea or gagging?

If they’re attractive smells, do they entice your character, lure or draw them in? Try incorporating the physical nature of smells into a story.

Smells and viewpoint – near and far

Smells in description can help to emphasise viewpoint. Salt smells at the seaside that reach deep into the lungs convey a different viewpoint to a fleeting sense of strange perfume on your lover’s collar.

Smells can be deeply intimate and tiny, or all-embracing in the air around us. They can also appear and disappear on the wind – for example, the scent of fox or dead sheep as you’re walking in the countryside.

Sensory writing practice:

Think about smell and its scale in your work in progress. What are the surroundings like? Is the smell close and pinpoint focused, or all-enveloping? Is it contained in a space, or free to shift and evaporate? Does it evoke the natural or industrial world? Is it alien and new to its environment, or part of it?

Try incorporating a sense of smell into your setting, to create a more immersive experience for your readers.

Phantom and imaginative smells

Smells hit straight into the brain, and a confused brain can even manufacture smells. I used to wake up in the night plagued by nauseating smells of petrol fumes which my partner couldn’t detect at all. After much worrying and looking around for the source, I spotted a possible link to an increase in coffee drinking. I cut the coffee (terrible withdrawal headaches!) and the petrol smells miraculously disappeared.

This made me wonder about other phantom smells, and differences in perception. This petrol smell was so real, but it was all in my head.

What smells are noticed by some people and not others, and why? By animals?

What would it mean if you could smell something extraordinarily real that constricted your breathing, yet no one else could? Conversely, what would it mean to have no sense of smell?

Sensory writing practice:

Consider the imaginative ways that smells exist in our lives, and the moods and social situations they create. Try writing a story triggered by an unpleasant smell, or a pleasant one. Use techniques of exaggeration, transformation, inversion, scale and absence to explore your idea imaginatively.

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