Opening to Your Senses: A Series for Writers – Part 5: Smell

If I say “cinnamon”, what memory is triggered? Chances are this Painting Title_041single word caused you to travel to a specific time and place.  You might have found yourself in your mother’s kitchen as she baked her famous cinnamon buns, or at your friend Lulu’s when you stayed over for a pyjama party and had a midnight snack of toasted raisin bread with cinnamon butter. Smells have the ability to take us (and our readers) instantly back to another time and place.

Olfaction is the sense of smell. “Smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.”(i) Click HERE to read the full article.

For a fascinating exploration of the sense of smell, I recommend the article entitled TheDSC01198 Science of Smell: How the Most Direct of Our Senses Works by Maria Popova featured in Brain Pickings.  To read, click HERE. The article includes excerpts related to smell from Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses.  Diane tells us that unlike our other senses, we have no choice but to smell.  If we stop smelling, we’ve stopped breathing.  

Examining our personal scent triggers helps us when we are creating triggers for our characters. Ackerman says: “A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them.” Personally, when I smell chlorine, I’m instantly transported to the pool where I took summer lessons to help me overcome my fear of water. I never lost my fear (nor did IIMG_0759 learn to swim that summer), but the scent of chlorine takes me back to that pool, and the sound of kids’ voices echoing off the tiles. Take a moment to think of your own personal scent triggers – possibly a brand of perfume, aftershave, or the smell of pipe tobacco?

Using Smell in your Writing

Smell is possibly the least-used sense in writing.  Scent description can be a powerful descriptive tool as it invokes a visceral response in most readers. Here are a few suggestions of ways to incorporate this sense:

  • one of your characters may have a signature scent – that could be a perfume, IMG_0762aftershave, cigarette smoke that clings to their clothes. This scent hovers in the air after they leave the room.  Or the character may love a particular type of flower
  • a description of the body’s smells can reach the reader in a powerful way that visual description can’t. In her poem “His Smell”, Sharon Olds chronicles the last days of her dying father’s life. She describes his sweat, how he smells “like yeast, ochre catalyst feeding in liquid, eating malt, excreting mash…” To read the full poem, CLICK HERE.
  • scent can instantly evoke a setting for your reader – consider the salty smell of seaDSC00334A air, the chemical smells of a morgue, the antiseptic odours of a hospital, the mustiness of a used book store or an attic, or the oh-so-sweet smell of a bakery
  • a character’s memory of a loved one who is gone may be triggered by a whiff of a scent – maybe they painted in oils and used turpentine to clean their brushes; they might have loved to do carpentry in their small workshop, and the smell of wood shavings could be the trigger
  • a character may use olfactory language: a situation “stinks”, or something “smells fishy”
  • a character’s uneasiness with an environment might be reflected in what they detect with their nose…a slight whiff of mold, the odour of natural gas, a campfire that is still smouldering though no one is around


#1 – Developing Your Scent Awareness

For an entire day, focus on being aware of the scents in your environment.  Jot down notes about what you discover.  It’s easy to note the strong ones – garlic sizzling in theDSC01194 pan, the smell of egg salad sandwiches. But also be aware of the subtle “almost not there” scents – the smell of the scented hand-wash in the bathroom, the way your bank or doctor’s office smells.

#2 Scent Descriptor Exercise

So that you can include the sense of smell more often in your writing, it’s helpful to compile your own list of scent descriptors.  Below I haveDSC01480 provided a list of “scent-full” items.  Beside each, jot down words you would use to describe their smell. You might also want to make note of any personal memories that these scents trigger.IMG_0528

  • the forest after a storm
  • salt air by the ocean
  • cloves
  • fresh baked bread
  • onions frying
  • burnt toast
  • freshly ground coffee
  • bleu cheese
  • boiled turnip
  • rotten fish
  • sulphur
  • lavender
  • mentholated rub
  • ammonia
  • pavement after rain
  • chlorine
  • baby shampoo
  • leaves being burned
  • manure in a barn
  • body odour
  • crayons
  • a sewer
  • mothballs
  • lily blossoms

Click HERE to compare your scent descriptors list list to a very comprehensive list on the Word Savvy website.

#3 – Using Scent as a Writing Prompt

  •  invite a group of writers to do this exercise with you.  Ask them first if they have anIMG_0767 allergies to scent
  • assemble opaque vials containing a variety of scents.  Some suggestions: mentholated rub, lavender oil, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, a piece of lemon
  • pass a single vial around the circle so that everyone uses the same scent
  • invite the writers to write for ten minutes using the scent as a prompt
  • repeat, using a different scent as the prompt 
  • invite the writers to read one of their pieces out loud
  • pay particular attention to the scent descriptors used in the writing.  Add new ones to your descriptor list

I hope that this post has helped you open to your sense of smell and the possibilities for using scent descriptors in your writing. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Until next time,



Source: (i) Dowdey, Sarah.  “How Smell Works”  29 October 2007. <>  05 May 2014.

To read Part 1 in this series (Visual), CLICK HERE.

To read Part 2 in this series (Sound), CLICK HERE.

To read Part 3 in this series (Taste) CLICK HERE.

To read Part 4 in this series (Touch) CLICK HERE.

Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, May 25, 2014.  We hope you can join us.

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All photographs and the drawing in this post are by Janis McCallen 


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