Writing Craft: Smells Make a Story Real by @RayneHall - #amwriting

Guest Post

by Rayne Hall

Here’s three powerful techniques 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 mold 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 mowed 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 odors.

Also, consider the genre. Thriller and horror readers appreciate being taken to places where odors 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 odors 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 odor 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 odor of BBB.

Beneath the scent of AAA lay the more ominous odors 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 odors 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 characterize 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. 

About the Author 

Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction.  She is the author of the bestselling Writer's Craft series and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies. 

She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.

Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat  adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne's arms when she's writing.

You can follow here on Twitter http://twitter.com/RayneHall where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.


1 comment

  1. Thanks for sharing such an insightful post, Rayne!


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