As writers, one of the things we hope to achieve is the total immersion of our readers; we want them to mentally plunge into another world when they read our work. Transforming a setting from words on a page into a breathing, 3-D landscape is through use of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
Sight is the primary sense used to describe things, but to make the reader almost astral travel requires an equal use of the other four senses. Some may not agree, but I think the most important of the other four is smell.
Sounds easy, right? Not exactly. Descriptors—words like “rank,” “sweet,” “sharp,” and many more aren’t specific enough to evoke a physical response, nor do they necessarily have a targeted connection to the environment, character, object, or whatever else is being described.
Here are some tips for creating unforgettable smells that will flesh out your world.
The way to get your readers to actually smell something, almost physically—even if it’s an unfamiliar smell or one that doesn’t exist (such as one that might be of an alien planet)—is to combine two common, familiar smells. Not everyone might know what the inside of a feed store in a heat wave smells like, but if it’s described as filled with the close and humid reek of moldy bread and fresh-cut wood, those are smells readers can imagine, so they might actually inspire a physical reaction. An office first thing in the morning might smell like coffee with the faint undercurrent of toner ink. A movie theatre auditorium might smell like stale popcorn and upholstery.
The good news is that the combinations are endless—and it even becomes fun. Consider newspapers and bug spray. Lavender and motor oil. The heavy scent of roses and fish fry. Cherry coke and a bar floor.
The trap is that the smells used have to be common. Or mostly common. One thing we see quite often in our darker reading travels is something “smelling like death.” It’s important to remember that unless readers are undertakers or work in some other field in which they’re around dead human flesh, it’s a good bet none of them is going to get a transportive effect from that. If you don’t know what death smells like? There are two options: A, blend two more common odors that might imitate what you think a body smells like, or B, skip it, and do something else. Maybe the room where the body is smells like bong water and rancid meat, or dirty socks and mold. If there’s a dead body in the room, readers will get the picture from the visual. Just make sure that room smells like something terrible.
Connotations of Smells
While we’re on the subject of terrible smells, the connotation of a smell should also be considered. Smells can tell us if something is awful and dark, or if something is good and light, and ultimately, can support the atmosphere and mood of your story or scene.
Take, for example, a carnival. If it’s a pleasant experience for the character, or if it’s supposed to be a positive, light scene/environment, it might smell like cotton candy and roasted peanuts. If it’s a place that seems pleasant on the surface but has something nasty going on underneath, it might smell like cotton candy and trodden mud. If it’s a bad place, it might smell like burnt funnel cakes and vomit. Each of the smell combinations I listed—while not very original—evoke three completely different emotional responses.
Smells are not just about the environment; they can tell readers so much about the characters: who they are, what they do for a living, or even what they’ve just been doing in a prior scene that isn’t rendered in your piece. A person who’s just finished readying to go out might smell like hairspray and the slight burnt electric smell of a hot iron. A mechanic might always smell like engine grease—or engine grease and a certain type of cologne or perfume if the person’s not actually on the job. An exterminator working out in the sun all day may come home smelling faintly of chemical and sweat. If someone’s just finished baking, that person might smell like a sweeter range of spices and the blander hint of flour.
When connected with characters, smells can also signal one character’s feelings toward another, or whether a character is good or evil. A character romantically attracted to another may notice nothing but pleasant smells, like lavender and vanilla or cedar and hot sand. If there’s dislike, conflict, or if the person’s the character’s enemy, the smells noticed may be more negative. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Sometimes, it’s interesting to make the “bad guy” smell “great.”
If your story’s in a real-world setting, such as a specific city or an environment like a desert, mountains, or near the sea, it’s important to figure out what smells would and wouldn’t be in that location. Someone who steps off an airplane in the Arctic Circle isn’t likely to be hit with the smell of apple trees or suntan lotion, for example. Woods in the state of Connecticut aren’t going to smell like cactus or oranges, just like an afternoon in Florida isn’t going to smell like freshly-fallen snow and cinnamon (unless, of course, it’s a freak snowstorm in Florida that’s being rendered). An oil rig at sea is unlikely to smell like fresh baked goods. You get the idea, but make sure the smells make sense for the environment.
An area’s flora is a great resource. If you’re unfamiliar with the vegetation that’s in a specific area, there is plenty of online data. Googling something as simple as “what kinds of trees exist in Bungtown, New York?” or “What kinds of plants do well in gardens in Austin, Texas?” will turn up a lot of interesting information. Extra hint: travel bloggers are really good at describing localized scents. If you’re working with an urban setting, you can also consider some of their regional foods and festivals as sources of specific scents.
Strength of Smells
When combining smells, it’s best to go with two strong ones, or a strong one with a whiff of a weaker one, and they have to be easy for the reader to summon—just like too much description, too much of a complex smell that the reader has to stop and think about can slow down pacing and pull the reader out of the story. Roses and bleach is a pretty strong combo that creates an instant reaction. Roses and rice, though—rice doesn’t have that much of a smell, so it’s a little bit harder to conjure. On the opposite end of the spectrum, smells like cooking bacon or the Thanksgiving turkey are difficult to compete with, so if an odor like that is required, you can probably just go with the one and that works just fine.
If two strong smells won’t work for the situation, use two strong smells and just make one weaker. Cigarette smoke and an undercurrent of funeral flowers, for example. The dominant smell should be the one that makes the stronger point for the story, scene, or setting. If someone is applying perfume in a bathroom to fix herself up before returning to her date, that bathroom should smell more like musky lilies with a hint of lemon cleaner, not the other way around.
Test it out
When trying out smells to use, close your eyes and imagine your scent combo. If you can “smell” it, your readers will, too. If you can’t, try another combination.
What if you have no idea what something smells like?
This can, sometimes, be a little bit tricky if you’re not from a certain area, because you might not know how a certain flora, food, or weather condition smells. If saying something like, “the fields smelled like dandelions” and you don’t know what dandelions smell like? Just Google “what does a dandelion smell like.” Something always turns up (I personally think dandelions smell faintly like baby powder and cut grass). If you’re confident that most readers will know the scent of dandelions, then dandelions can be used in combination with something else—“Mom liked to paint outside, and she always smelled faintly of dandelions and turpentine.”
Less is More
It may be tempting to use more than two smells, but it’s best to stick to the formula—it’s just enough to inspire the reaction. More than two, and it’s hard for the reader to nail the combination. We’re not sure why this is, exactly—there’s probably some physiological reason for it—but try the experiment yourself. With two, your brain can produce a “blend.” With three? It doesn’t quite work; it’s too hard to grasp.
In addition, restraint is also a good idea. A couple of smells sprinkled in a short story is sufficient; not everything has to have a smell.
When you’re out in the world—even when you’re not writing—keep a notebook with you and write down what you smell in various locations; the best way to be accurate is to record the way it is in reality.
We hope this was helpful! Comment below if you have questions, or if you’d like to share a smell combo of your own!