Olfactory Sensory Details

Clara Peeters,  Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels

Clara Peeters, Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels


Scents have an uncanny ability to evoke vivid memories and strong emotions. This may be because, unlike our visual and auditory nerve pathways, our olfactory nervous system wires into the hippocampus and the amygdala, two "primitive" structures of the brain that are associated heavily with memory and emotion.  This strong, visceral reaction can make smell a powerful tool for a writer--perhaps an underused one. 

Consider some of these ways of using the sense of smell in fiction: 

  • As a defining character trait - For me, the scent of pipe tobacco will always conjure up pleasant memories of my fifth and sixth grade teacher, who was also the principal of our tiny elementary school in Yellowstone Park. He was one of the first adults outside my family to make me feel like I was smart, and strong, and like it was okay to be different from the other kids. What scents would be fundamentally characteristic of the people in your story? What emotional response would other characters have to that scent?
  • As a character "quirk" - Some people have a very strong sense of smell, and will notice the mishmash of scents that are present even before they notice visual or auditory details when they arrive  in a new place, or meet a new person.  How might your story be different if one of your characters has this trait?
  • To evoke a sense of place in the setting. There's nothing quite like smell to make a reader feel grounded in a setting. The smell of the sea, the reek of gasoline at the shop, the delicious musty paper and ink smell of a library....aaaahhhh!
  • To set a mood - Real estate agents recommend baking cookies or bread before showing a house, because for most people those scents set a mood of peaceful hominess. How would the mood in the same house change if a character walked in and smelled antiseptic cleaners? Or cigarette smoke? Or blood?
  • To trigger flashbacks - Because scents are such powerful memory triggers, they can be used in writing to call up events from a character's past that can help fill in the back story. 
  • To create obstacles. Scents that are associated with a traumatic experience can cause people to have flashbacks of their trauma. If your protagonist has experienced that kind of trauma, how could the associated scents create intangible obstacles to prevent him or her from achieving story goals?

Something to keep in mind when including scent in your writing is that although scents can evoke strong emotional responses in people, they won't necessarily evoke thesame emotional responses. Different people will have different memories associated with the same scents--for someone else, the scent of pipe smoke might bring visceral memories of interactions with an abuser, not pleasant memories of a supportive mentor. So you might want to choose your signature scents carefully. And it might be a good idea to give a careful description of the specific emotional response or memories your character associates with a given smell just so there's no confusion on the part of the reader. 

Scents can be difficult to describe, however. With vision and hearing, which are more closely associated with language in our brains, we have developed strong vocabularies of descriptors. Visually, we can talk about color, size, shape, brightness, or dimness. With sound we can speak in terms of pitch, and intensity, and harmonics. Three notes played together to make a single harmonic sound are called a chord--but what is the word for three scents that come together to form a single pleasant scent? We don't have one. And yet, in some ways, describing scent can push us to use language in a more creative, intuitive way than we might with some of the more easily described senses.

For example, we might use figurative language. If we say he smelled like lilacs, we're employing a simle--obviously he isn't literally a lilac, it's just a comparison. Or we might borrow descriptions from other senses. If we say a thing had a heavy, bitter scent, the word heavy is borrowing from the tactile senses, and the word bitter is borrowing from taste.