Using the Five Senses in Writing Part Two – Scent and Smell


I wrote last week about the five senses and the need for sensory input in our writing. Images, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures (the way things feel on our skin) give our writing immediacy, intensity, keep the setting in the reader’s mind, and help generate that movie-like sensation that pulls a reader into the worlds we create. When we add in our characters’ reactions, it becomes more than just a sensory record – it becomes that new, no-longer-imaginary world and our characters become real people.

My friend Bob—the man in the writer’s group who pushed and cajoled us all into using more sensory language, was particularly adamant about smell, saying that most writers forget all about smell, and their writing suffered for it. He was right. I started using much sensory language in my writing, with a strong emphasis on how smells touch on backstory—the way that smells evoke intense memories and help with character building, without causing an infodump.

When I started writing a non-human character—Jane Yellowrock and her sister-soul, Beast—I discovered that all Bob’s lessons in sensory writing were being put to an even better use, and that I still had some things—okay a lot of things—to learn, like the way sensory language, when layered with voice, setting, and style tells its own story.

In honor of Bob, let me toss out a few smelly medleys, from Jane Yellowrock’s and Beast’s perspective.

JY, Smell: I leaned in again. This time, he smelled only of his master. A close perusal of the blood-signature proved that the master wasn’t someone I knew, not someone I had ever met. Beast didn’t have the olfactory memory of a bloodhound, but she was no slouch either. She would have remembered this scent. It was peaty and spicy and a little beery. Odd for a vamp.

By ending with the saying that the smell was odd for a vamp, I set up that this smell may be a clue for the conflict, and give the description a hint of both the unknown and of uneasiness.

JY, Smell: Ignoring the shadow that loomed over me, I leaned and sniffed. The blue-eyed man smelled of witchy-power, not his own, but something he had bought from a powerful witch, and the stench overrode the scent-signature of his master. Whatever amulet he had, was underneath him, inactivated, and I intended to keep it that way. I pulled his arms back and secured them with a zipstrip. Then added three more strips. He was a blood-servant to someone very powerful, with a witchy charm on his person. I wasn’t taking chances.

Again, Jane’s reactions to the scent make the scene work, and give her a reason for her overcautious reactions. Also, because we have so few emotion-intensive words for smell in the English language, I have to be careful to avoid the repetitive use of specific words. For instance the words odor, aroma, reek, and stench, each have their own emotional overtones, and I can’t replace one for the other, any more than I can overuse one or two.

JY, Smell : I pulled in scents, my nostrils widening. His boots smelled of horse manure, fresh. Local boy then, or one who had been in town long enough to find a mount. I smelled horse sweat and hay, a clean blend of scents. And cigar. It was the cigar that made me like him. The taint of steel, gun oil, and silver made me fall in love. Well, sorta. My Beast thought he was kinda cute, and maybe tough enough to be worthy of us. Yet there was a faint scent on the man, hidden beneath the surface smells, that made me wary.

Where most main characters will have only cursory scents to make an initial judgment of a new character they are meeting for the first time, and will depend heavily on sight, Jane has the added layer of intense smell to guide her. For the writers with non-human POV characters, don’t forget that most animals have senses of smells millions of times greater than humans and they react to them intensely. I wrote a scene once where Beast found and rolled in catnip, while Jane was screaming for her to get a move on and Beast totally ignored her, blissed-out by smell. That was fun.

Beast, Smell: Scent called. Strange smell that almost was. Sick thing moved on. Keeping to shadows, its excitement potent. Hunting. Cars passed. I followed when shadows fell again, nose low. Smelled prey-scent beneath mad one’s footsteps. Human female, walking. Sex-smells, many partners. She was unmated, searching. Loneliness was forceful, buried in scent.

Beast and Jane think and react on both big-cat and human levels, though language from Beast’s POV is primitive, choppy, and not always exactly on target. Beast is able to interpret smells in ways no humans can, and yet react to them in ways that humans traditionally—if she is in the mood. My dogs know when I am sad, angry, unwell, and even lonely, and will curl up near me to offer the comfort of the den. Their body language tells me that they understand exactly what I am feeling and their reactions are specific to my emotions.

Beast, Smell: On far side of big river, city thinned, smells changed. Less death: sour river water, dead fish, alcohol, exhaust. More prey: domestic and feral cat, many dogs. Big rats—nutria. She had studied. Twenty-pound rats. Good to eat? Birds—prey and predator. Owls hunting. Bats. Squirrel, small mouthful. Mosquitoes, too small to catch. Swamp. Spill-waters emptying into lakes around New Orleans. Still-water stretched ahead. Sharp, pointed moon reflected on top.

Beast thinks in absolutes—life and death, good and bad, food and not-food. So, a new place, near a known one, will have its scent medley compared to the old both place in positive ways and negative ways. And then, to avoid the laundry list of scent-characteristics, I add in the vision of the sickle moon from her perspective.

JY, Smell: On reflex, I ducked right, into the corner of the room, pulled the nine mil and a vamp killer, the one I’d killed the blood-slave with. Whirled to faced them. I knew the vamps would smell the fresh blood, despite the thorough cleaning I’d given the blade in the ladies room.

In the lines just before this, Jane caught a whiff of a stranger. She sometimes reacts to smell strictly on instinct, just like her Beast might. And for this story arc, she doesn’t even realize that is why she is reacting.

We’ve been putting the down the laundry list of attributes and characteristics in description, but as we always say here at the Magical Words fantasy writing forum, there is no one way to accomplish an end in our writing, and sometimes, that old, worn-out method has its place. Time for the laundry list:

JY, Mixed Senses: “I don’t think so,” a voice said behind me. I turned and saw a man, human—or as human as the fang-heads’ dinners ever are. I knew this guy wasn’t one of Ro’s usual blood-servants; even if I hadn’t been able to smell the new master on him, he wasn’t in the dossier. He was maybe seventy years old, looked twenty-five, and was powerful—meaning that he had fed on the blood of a master for a very long time. Bald, six-feet-and-a-smidge, blue eyes, reddish beard needing a shave, casual clothes, shirt half-tucked, as if he’d dressed and gotten here in a hurry. He was a righty.

And he had a gun pointed at my chest.

Jane takes in and catalogs everything in an instant, the laundry list choppy, fast, and with that police procedural fell to it. The ending tells us why she took this approach. She ends with knowledge that might be useful in a fight (he’s right-handed) and the most important point he brought along a little friend and knew how to use it.

JY, Mixed senses: The muzzle flash blinded me, but I fired back, three shots in his general direction. He rose into my window again, looked me in the eyes, and fired two more shots. He moved freaky fast, and could see in the dark. Not human-normal. A punching pain hit me, like a hard strike delivered by black-belt with something to prove. Burning and icy. Chest shot. He’d hit me.

But I smelled blood, his as well as mine. Blinded by the flashes, deaf from the concussive explosions, I felt along my booted foot for my backup. My chest stabbed with pain and I couldn’t reach the holster.

Unlike in my other writing, with human characters, I seldom use only one scent in scenes with Jane, but layer them on together like scales on a snake. Jane’s reactions to smell and sounds and textures make the writing more intense and allow me to go into places with my writing that I’ve never been before. A new stop on the writing journey.

For the next few weeks, keep a laundry list ( J ) of your sensory scenes for the week when I open the board up to your scenes. For today – jump in here y’all. How does smell affect (infect?) your writing? Do you see a place for it where you left it out?

AND! Will you like this site on FaceBook, Twitter, and or whatever social media you use? The buttons are just below. That helps with our standing on Google and other search ingines. Just a bit about the business of writing!



15 comments to Using the Five Senses in Writing Part Two – Scent and Smell

  • Love this series of posts! All the examples just drive it all home. In my own writing, I try to use sound and smell more, but I still struggle with the latter. Finding a way to describe a smell can have me staring at the screen for a long time, and I’m rarely satisfied with the final results. I don’t know if my own sense of smell is lacking or just my olfactory vocabulary. I’ll keep trying though.

  • I love to use scent in writing, when I remember to do it. Smells, in many ways, are the most emotionally powerful sensory input — a smell can transport you, take you back to your childhood, to your long-dead parents, to an old lover. Using scents in descriptive writing not only will bring your setting to life, it will also offer new ways to connect with your characters’ emotions and background.

  • Love it! (Seems to be a theme…) The say scientists have proven that the sense of smell is linked more closely to memories than any other senses. Might as well take advantage of that.

    From a writing stand point, I especially love the way you tie the sensor description in with the character’s voices; it really highlights the differences. Thanks, too, for the examples. I always learn more from seeing real examples on the page that I do from things described from a distance.

  • Stuart, it helps if you are flogged over the head with scent weekly. Bob was insistant!

    David, I agree — memory and scent are entwined so closely. I just opened an old, empty trunk and the smell of old paper and wood and mold took me right back to the day I bought that trunk. I was shopping in a trash-and-treasures place with mom. It was a wonderful day, and the smell brought it all home.

    But, yeah — it’s ahrd to remember to use smell and I find I often put scent into the WIP in the first rewrite, the morning after the rough was completed.

    Edmund, writing from Beast’s POV has been the most techinically difficult and the most creatively rewarding writing experience of my whole career. She reacts on such a deep level to everything around her!

  • I especially like the way that scents are tied to emotional or semi-emotional reactions. Like David said (and you too) to memories. I know that there are still a few scents that transport me instantly back to a moment where they were significant. The trick is finding those for my characters, too. Of course, my characters don’t have super-human scent senses, so theirs will be a touch more mundane: food, cologne/perfume, shampoo and stuff…

  • I remember the strawberry musk perfume that was popular when I was a kid. The memories that smell brings back are all jumbled up together, unless I add in the memory of ocean breezes. And then the combo reminds me of my first serious boyfriend. Wow. Yeah, Pea-Emily. Good strong scents and memories are wonderful fodder for a writer.

  • Faith, I think that in order to “like” the site as a whole (as opposed to individual articles) interested parties need to go to FB directly and do a search for “Magical Words”. As of this writing, there are only 4 people who actually like MW itself. It would be nice if the webmaster or whoever set up the FB page could set it up so that the page updates when the site does. Right now, it’s a very quiet page.

    As for scents … I pretty much echo everything everyone else has said so far. Love this series! Tying scent into an emotional memory is a fantastic tip. I have mentioned scents a few time in my WIP, but I haven’t specifically tied it to experiences. Usually I’ve just tied it to an action.

  • Tom G

    I must admit, I don’t use smell as much as I could. It might be due to my own deficiency in that department. I have a weak sense of smell. I do try, though.

  • Laura, thank you! I had no idea, but have sent this info the webmaster.

    Tom — it’s hard to use scant. Really hard! Especially if you don’t smell. Er … um … you get what I mean.

  • Razziecat

    I think the sense of smell is more closely tied into emotions than anything else. When I smell my mom’s favorite perfume, it’s like she’s there in the room with me. Burying my nose in my cat’s fur is comforting and soothing. And one of my favorite smells of all–the smell of a new book–always brings a smile to my face. So I try to bring scents into my writing, to make the experience more real, more complete, more visceral, for the character and thus for the reader.

  • Megan Frances

    These are great examples of how your characters interpret smells as clues. Thanks for the reminder to infuse my writing with sensory details. I know I sometimes write on auto-pilot — mostly about what a character sees or feels.

  • Monique

    Wanted to chime in on the “great post series” bandwagon. 🙂

    Usually after I get a scene drafted I make an editing pass through just to enhance the sensory input, because it’s never as rich as I want in the initial draft. My favorite authors tend to be those who write in lush, nearly purple-prose descriptions (old Tannith Lee, for example).

    I think most people have a “key” sense — musicians, for example, notice the timber of voices and background sounds. Beast is obviously more guided by scent than a typical human character would be. Part of my process of character exploration involves discovering which sense(s) a character relies upon the most and how they interact physically with their environment. In the tv show Firefly, Adam Baldwin was famous for the mannerisms he gave his character Jayne — Jayne was ‘handsy’; always touching things. That kind of character would, in prose, describe an environment much differently than, say, Beast would.

    I myself have almost no sense of smell at all, so I habitually forget to include scent information. I have a character who is very aware of scents and I find it stretches my writing to have to go back and include the information he would naturally notice.

  • Late to the party – but wanted to add my “Great Post, Faith” to the collection.

  • I didn’t skip reading this, just didn’t failed to post my comment. *must wait until page fully posts before moving on*

    Anyway, the short of what I said before was, great post and love the examples. JY tops list of Urban Fantasy to-read.

  • Ugh. Need more tea, and an editor.