The Often Forgotten Sense of Smell

Of the five senses, I often find myself completely forgetting about smell. Isn’t it said that smell is very important in unlocking memories? How awesome is that – it’s a perfect way to lead into memories in your WIP.

The smell of lemon drops will forever remind me of my Grandmother (or is that Dumbledoor?? haha) and the smell of a new shampoo will always make me think of my sister. What smells conjure memories for you and how do you add this into your writing?

My MC has a very strong sense of smell. After getting my first pages back from my crit partners I realized I used the word smell, scent, sniff wayyy too many times and needed to figure out new ways to describe scent. So, without further ado, here are some tips for writing about the sense of smell. (Most of these are pared down from

  1. Are there images or memories associated with the smell? What is your gut reaction when you think of the smell? Feelings or emotions?
  2. Use adjectives- wispy, rancid, airy, musty, stale. Adjectives will describe the effect of the smell.
  3. Use nouns and be specific – is the smell of chocolate milk or dark, or is it the smell of hot fudge to be poured over ice cream? Or is it chocolate with a hint of raspberry? All of these scents will elicit different emotions from your reader and your MC.
  4. Use verbs – waft, distract, hint, permeate, suggest, confuse. Suggest the source: are you baking or frying? Sweating from a hard run or desire? Visualize what it does – creep into the nose, wrap around, follow, bombard.
  5. Borrow words from other senses: sight – bright, dark, clear, hazy; sound – dissonant, harmonious, loud, quiet; touch – sharp, dull, rough, smooth; taste – sweet, salty, bitter.
  6. What is the reaction to the smell? Do you relax, stiffen, pucker. Is it startling, jarring, soothing or comforting?
  7. And of course, the good old metaphor. The smell of hot dogs hit me like a tornado.

Are there any other tricks you like to use when writing about the sense of smell? What other senses do you find yourself forgetting to write about?

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7 thoughts about "The Often Forgotten Sense of Smell"

  • Lori M. Lee says:

    I love describing smells! I usually associate them with memories or images, which I feel is more evocative 😀

  • Medeia Sharif says:

    I love these, especially #5. I sparingly write about smells in my writing, but I'd like to include them more.

  • Michelle Fayard says:

    Thank you very much, Juliana, for reminding us about this important and often-forgotten sense. Like Lori, I find that scents transport me to my strongest memories, such as baking pastries with Mom and Grandma or running through a field of sun-baked grasses.

    P.S. I've left a response to your comment on Jeanne's blog,

  • JRo - Jaye Robin Brown says:

    I think smell can be used like building character, two things nice + one thing a little stinky to describe something – people are never all good, except for chocolate, smells often can be a bit funky too.

  • Christine Murray says:

    Hey! I gave you the Liebster Award, pop on by and pick it up 🙂

  • Alleged Author says:

    I love #1 because memories associated with smell are so important in novels. Great way to introduce background info with info dumping. Awesome post!

  • JJ Toner (euclid) says:

    When I watch television, it switches on all sorts of smell-memories. A guy lights a cigar on the screen, I can smell it! How weird is that!


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