Using smell to improve your fiction

Yikes - what's that stench? This guest post looks at smell in fiction and wonders whether it's high time that we scribes started paying more attention to our less utilised senses.

Guest post by Icy Sedgwick
I was leaving my building this morning when I caught a strong whiff of something.

I couldn’t identify the mystery smell but it provoked a rather unpleasant memory of a particularly rotten individual whom I wish I never had the misfortune to meet.

Still, every cloud has a tarnished lining, and it got me thinking…how often do writers include smell in the composition of a scene?

Visual description

Plenty of descriptive passages begin with “He/she/it/I saw” or “He/she/I heard”, before the writer offloads their flashes of brilliance wrapped up in the kind of deft wordplay that Stephanie Meyer would sell her kidneys for.

It’s understandable – humans are visual creatures and we describe what we see in order for our world to make sense both to us, and to others.

We sometimes remember to include sound, which is handy since noise, or the lack thereof, helps to define our experience of our surroundings.

Subjective smells

Smell gets a bit of a raw deal and is often forgotten. I suspect this may be because smell is somewhat more subjective.

What smells like floor cleaner to me might smell like peach Melba to you. I might sniff that bottle of milk and gag at the stench of milk blossoming into rancid cheese, whereas you might still think it smells OK. It’s merely ‘a bit strong’.

Something I have never smelled

Not only that, but you might shy away from trying to describe a smell for fear of sounding like an over-enthusiastic wine buff. What if your reader has never smelled whatever it is you’re describing?

We can usually visualise an approximation of a scene based on descriptions, and even if we’re slightly wrong, whatever we’ve imagined will still suit the author’s purpose.

Yet the inclusion of smell hints at a very defined mental image, one that has been sculpted and honed with the precision of a Renaissance master.

And if you get it wrong…you’ve missed the mark by several miles as your reader puts down your book and goes off in search of a Dan Brown.

What smell can do for you!

The trouble with smell is it’s often better experienced than described. It’s a shame, because smell has the potential to help create strong scenes in a way that sight and sound simply can’t.

Say you have a character who doesn’t take care of himself. We shall cast this man as a creepy caretaker who skulks around his workplace leaving a trail of dirty mop prints. One night, our diligent protagonist runs into him after staying late at school.

Sure, you could describe lank hair, greasy skin or tattered overalls in desperate need of repair, but that’s been done to death. Thinking of an original visual image is a little more difficult in our postmodern age.

So how about we lose the physical description, and instead mention the odour of stale sweat that follows him around?

Maybe he leaves the smell of ‘wet dog’ in his wake. If you want to hint at his nocturnal proclivities, you simply add the essence of ‘damp earth’. Et voilà, a heady perfume that tells us more about this man than reams of physical description ever could.

The smell can even trigger a memory in our plucky hero of a previous encounter with the villainous rotter. Tell us the smell, and the mind will infer the rest.

Breathe in

So if you feel that your prose is a little flat, or you want to make your descriptions different from the hackneyed clichés that abound in fiction, I’d really recommend experimenting with smell.

It is a rich and varied world out there – all we have to do is breathe it in.

Image: mattwi1s0n

Share your thoughts

What a niff! Do you use smell in writing or are you guilty of neglecting some of your senses? Got any examples of great stinky fiction? We want to know – leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

21 Comments 6 October 2010 Reply

I remember vividly an encounter, years ago, with a college lecturer (who is sadly no longer with us). He picked my perfume in one and told me it evoked memories of his sister-in-law he hadn’t seen in a very long time (he was an expat Canadian). He told me a picture might be worth a thousand words but a scent was worth a thousand memories. And from then I, I always made sure to note how things smelt.
In your character building you could ask… what does my main character smell like? What does this tell me about them? Do they have a signature perfume or aftershave?

The lead-in character for Chinese Whisperings plays a game called ‘airport bingo’ and on at least two of those bingos squares are smells to be sought out and identified. They are a woman’s perfume and a men’s aftershave. I never worked out why she sought them out or who they might have once belonged to?

But I agree with you Icy, smell gets a raw deal in fiction and I think its sad. It’s good to engage all the senses when writing.I’m more likely to be able to hear what’s going on in a scene and smell it than to actually visualise it.

The only tricky element for smell, because certain smells are hardwired with certain memories and emotions, the writer can accidentally evoke the wrong type of inner ambience in your reader.

Anonymous 6 October 2010 Reply

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Iain Broome, JodiCleghorn. JodiCleghorn said: RT @iainbroome: Using smell to improve your fiction (by@icypop) […] 6 October 2010 Reply

Thanks so much for contributing this post, Icy. It made me think about my novel (which is currently being sent to publishers by my agent so it’s too late to add in a few stinkz!) and whether I’s used smell much. I think I have and I haven’t.
My lead character does a lot of baking, so I describe the smell of that quite a bit. But I don’t think I really say what the characters themselves smell like. I need to check properly!

It’s an interesting thought though – I’m interested to see what everyone else says… 6 October 2010 Reply

Even if you don’t use smell to describe your character, it certainly evokes an atmosphere – and now all I can think about is freshly baked bread! 6 October 2010 Reply

He’s more of a cake man – but now I’m also thinking about bread. Damn it. 6 October 2010 Reply

That’s great advice Icy. Adding smell is a good way to bring the reader into your fictional world and help them experience it with their own senses. In real life, certain smells really affect me, so I’ve had a tendency to describe smell in my writing pretty regularly. It’s funny how strong people’s reactions can be to the idea of an unpleasant smell. It’s almost like the equivalent of a literary scratch and sniff. Fun! 6 October 2010 Reply

Thanks for some great food for thought! I often use music to inspire me and now will include using my sense of smell more consciously! Hari Aum!Bronwyn 6 October 2010 Reply

Smell is, as I remember, the sense that belongs, in evolutionary terms, to the oldest part of our brain. It’s hardwired into us in a very powerful way. I used to compete in mind sports and one of the things I remember learning from training is the associative power of smell in helping our recall. This post is a timely reminder not to ignore the most evocative sense. I’ll point to this piece of writing I was looking over this morning, by Sarah Melville, that uses smell particularly effectively

Anonymous 6 October 2010 Reply

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cheryl Rainfield, Khaver Siddiqi, ozdalt, Francis Davila, Faraaz Kazi and others. Faraaz Kazi said: RT @AdviceToWriters: Using smell to improve your #fiction – (via @BubbleCow) #WriterWednesday #ww […] 7 October 2010 Reply

You read it time and again – the smell of boiled cabbage – usually in an aged and decrepid apartment building. Strangely enough, I don’t think I can recall the smell of boiled cabbage and I’ve been in some terrible buildings. But, it works for me every time – the words still evoke the image. Aint our brains wonderful? 8 October 2010 Reply

What a great primer on “the forgotten sense.” I agree it’s a shame that us human types are visually oriented (at least in this regard). So I guess we’re stuck with similes until my scratch and sniff novel comes out.

Obviously, Iain hangs with the best.

George 8 October 2010 Reply

I really like the idea of this – will try to use it in my next story. 8 October 2010 Reply

I’m just glad people have found this useful! If anyone writes any ‘smelly’ fiction as a result, I’d love to see it. 9 November 2010 Reply

Now we really are talking scratch and sniff! 15 November 2010 Reply

Thanks Icy for this nice article..I love smelling things-they give you a long lasting memory. I am aware of the power of smell in stories and articles and try to use them, as they evoke memories in the readers, and makes the story come alive. Now will use it more often…;).. 6 August 2011 Reply

How do you use smell to describe a piece of music? 31 December 2011 Reply

Smell is so evocative! Smell completes pictures. I find I create images in my mind when reading always, and descriptions of smell, makes these images come to life.
Maybe it’s because I spent my childhood in Africa where smells rule. There’s nothing like the smell of frangipani, open cooking fires and hot tyre rubber to ignite Childhood for me. Another is the smell of dust heated by the sun. Dust can smell. That’s another evocative image.

Writers leave smell out of their writing at great cost. Why? Smell is acknowledge as the foremost sense; used in memory therapy for those whose memory is failing.

Smell completes the pictures your writing paint, even for those for whom smell is not a dominant sense.

Anonymous 25 January 2013 Reply

[…] Using smell to improve your fiction | Iain Broome. […] 20 June 2013 Reply

Thanks for this, Icy .< — but this certainly inspired me some! Some times I feel like I'm just rushing a part of my story(s)/book(s) but I bet I can fix that a bit…Thanks once again!

Anonymous 21 July 2013 Reply

[…] I found this article interesting regarding smell. It is from the point of view of somebody that does smell and he describes how important it can be to describe in literature. I found it interesting in that he also mentions how difficult it can be to describe as people’s perspective on a particular smell can be different. Which does make me feel a little more assured if even the smellers (or “olfies”) have difficulty doing so. If you’re interested, it is on this link; […]

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