Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sense Of Smell Makes the Story Come To Life.

by Rayne Hall)

Here’s a powerful technique for immersing readers into your story: use the sense of smell.

Of all the senses, smell has the strongest psychological effect. The mere mention of a smell evokes memories and triggers associations in the reader’s subconscious.

Mention a smell, and the scene comes to life. Mention two or three, and the reader is pulled into the scene as if it were real.

A single sentence about smells can reveal more about a place than several paragraphs of visual descriptions. For example, the hero enters a home for old people. “The place smelled of boiled cabbage, urine and disinfectant.” These nine words are enough to convey what kind of old people’s home this is, and it creates a strong image in the reader’s mind.

Or try these: “The room smelled of pizza, beer and unwashed socks.” “The room smelled of beeswax, joss sticks and patchouli.” “The corridor smelled of mould and leaking sewage.” “The kitchen smelled of coffee, cinnamon and freshly baked bread.” “The kitchen smelled of burnt milk, overripe pears and bleach.” “The garden smelled of lilacs and freshly mown grass.” “The cell smelled of blood, urine and rotting straw.”

Where and How to Use this Technique

The best place to insert a sentence about smells is immediately after the point-of-view character has arrived at a new location. That’s when humans are most aware of smells, so it feels right if you mention them.

Smells trigger emotions. If you want your reader to feel positive about the place, use pleasant scents. To make the reader recoil, mention nasty odours.

Also consider the genre. Thriller and horror readers appreciate being taken to places where odours are as foul as the villain’s deeds, but romance readers want a pleasant experience, so treat them to lovely scents.


If you like, you can use this technique in almost every scene. To keep it fresh, vary the sentence structure and the wording. Here are some suggestions:

The place reeked/stank of AAA and BBB.

The odours of AAA and BBB mingled with the smells of CCC and DDD.

Her nostrils detected a whiff of AAA beneath the smells of BBB and CCC.

The smell of AAA warred with the stronger odour of BBB.

The air was rich with the scents of AAA and BBB.

The smell of AAA failed to mask the stench of BBB.

The stench of AAA hit him first, followed by the odour of BBB.

Beneath the scent of AAA lay the more ominous odours of BBB and CCC.

The scents of AAA and BBB greeted her.

The smells of AAA and BBB made his mouth water.

He braced himself against the stink of AAA and BBB.

Professional Examples

These examples show how authors have used this technique in their fiction.

The room smelled like stale smoke and Italian salad dressing. (Michael Connelly: The Poet)

I took a couple of deep breaths, smelled rain, diesel and the pungent dead-fish-and-salt stench off the river. (Devon Monk: Magic to the Bone)

The place smelt of damp and decay. (Jonathan Stroud: The Amulet of Samarkand)

A rare south wind had brought the smell of Tyre to last night’s landfall: cinnamon and pepper in the cedar-laced pine smoke, sharp young wine and close-packed sweating humanity, smoldering hemp and horse piss. (Mathew Woodring Stover: Iron Dawn)

The smell hit her first: rotting flesh, ancient blood. (Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Sins of the Blood)

The air reeked of hot metal, overheated electronic components, scorched insulation – and gasoline. (Dean Koontz: The Bad Place)

The air held the warm odours of honey and earth, of pine resin and goat sweat, mingled with the scents of frying oil and spice. (Rayne Hall: Storm Dancer)

Your Turn

Have a go. Whatever story you’re working on right now, whatever scene you’re writing, think of two or more smells that characterise the place. Write a sentence about them. If you like,
post your sentence in the comments section. I’d love to see what you come up with.

Click here to find out about Rayne Hall and her books.