Tour of the Five Senses: Smell

Traveling right along on our tour, we come to our second-to-last sense - SMELL.

Glade’s not wrong when it says its scents are “Inspired by the best feelings in the world.” Smell is a powerful trigger for memories and actions—one we can put to use in our writing.

Smell as a Worldbuilding Tool
Describing odors in a great way to anchor readers quickly within your world, whether it’s the damp, fresh-earth smell of a deep jungle, the stale air of an old prison cell, or the exhaust fumes of an industrial city. Take us there!

Smell as a Warning

Scents also mean many things beyond setting. Often, they signal a sign of danger or a coming twist—almost a foreshadowing, if you will. A smoky smell alerting characters to fire, sulfur warning of a demon the moment before it appears.

There’s a reason animals wiggle their noses so often to smell the air. Use it as a way to perk up your characters (and the readers) by saying “This is new. This is different. Pay attention.”

Smell as Comfort
The opposite of danger works just as well with smells. Warm foods roasting over a fire, the smell of home, even the specific perfume or scent of a loved one. Smells can set the mood.

Fun with Juxtaposition

Try surprising readers with your combinations. Maybe the scent of roses, normally an enjoyable aroma, means evil (We’re looking at you President Snow). If you’re writing a zombie romance, the smell of death might actually bring a smile to your characters’ faces (What’s left of them).

Let’s look at how the examples are shaping up:


Lovers on a Beach
I couldn’t see the stars, not directly, but I didn’t know how they could possibly top their reflection in his eyes. His skin was slick, smooth and hard, though tender enough to give where my fingers caressed it. His lips still held the salt of our swim. Its pucker on my tongue sent memories cascading through me like the waves and the heat that had driven us under again and again. He smelled of sunscreen, salt and sweat.

There, beneath all that deliciousness, a deeper more hurtful flavor took shape. The taste of goodbye.

Were-bats Attack!!
I drew a soft, swift breath through my nose. The scent of decay and clove. Then I saw them. Dozens of them. Winging at me with their little claws out—furred, like a bear’s, not feathered. And then all went black. Omigosh, had one of them landed on my FACE?! I tasted iron. Blood, at the corner of my mouth. That would attract them. I spat before it could fill my mouth and curdle my already panicked stomach.

My hand grappled in the night, found something that felt like lace spun in a consistency of dead things. It sunk in when I pressed hard, and I stifled a cry of horror.

Looking for SIGHT, TOUCH and TASTE? Find them here.


  1. I'm getting better at using scents. Usually they signify something bad in my writing.

  2. Excellent post! Scents can be quite difficult to write about, especially if you're trying to describe the way a person smells. That can be really challenging!

  3. This is FANTASTIC! Using the five senses is a great way to add depth and detail to the story. I love what you've shared about "smell." Excellent post!

  4. Smell is definitely a great sense to use when writing. :)

  5. Yeah, this is one of my favorite sense to use when describing a new place or even a new person. Describing someone as having dog breath sets an image of that character in the reader's mind for sure. :)

  6. Great post! I like the juxtapositioning of scents.

  7. If their description of food smell makes me hungry, I'll love that author forever. :)

  8. Smell is such a powerful scent. Do you ever have a memory smell? Like when I play solitaire on the computer, I actually smell a deck of actual cards. It's so vivid.

  9. Smell is such an important sense in our lives, but we take it for granted. Which of course means that although it's probably the one sense that would be most effective at placing a reader in a scene, it gets forgotten by writers the most often.

  10. Alex - Uh oh, I hope your characters don't smell anything then. :)

    Kyra - Yes! I find that super tricky too.

    Leigh - Thanks for the kind words.

    Cherie - It can add so much.

    L.G. - Ha, yes I definitely get an immediate mental image of a character described as having "dog breath." :)

    Christine - Agreed. It can add yet another layer to the story.

    David - One of my CPs writes fantastic food scenes. I have to be careful not to read her stuff while I'm hungry!

    M Pax - Totally! I have a weird, but kind of cool, memory smell of the docks where I had a marine biology retreat for a couple years. Every time I get a whiff of it, I'm right back there.

    Misha - You're right. Important but so easy to overlook.