Using the Sense of Smell

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Writers paint a picture for our readers. We want them to see what we see, or what we’ve imagined. So it makes sense that the most of our writing focuses on what we see—that is, uses the sense of sight. But if you want to paint a more vivid picture for your readers, be sure to sprinkle in the other senses: smell, taste, hearing, and touch.

In today’s mini lesson and prompt, we’ll focus on the sense of smell. Here are some examples of writing using the sense of smell.

“The room smelled like stale smoke and Italian salad dressing.” (Michael Connelly, “The Poet”) Here, Connelly uses the odors of a place in a fairly basic way, describing what he actually observes, and his description puts us there in the room. Here’s another:

“Wearing dry-cleaned jeans and a white T-shirt under a red bolero jacket, she gingerly wandered about, lightly touching things, her perfume, that vanilla musk, laying down a heavy sweetish track wherever she went.” (Richard Price, “Samaritan”) Here, Price goes a bit further, using a scent to tell us something about one of the characters. Here’s Anne Lamott, in nonfiction:

“After a while, I stretched out on one of the benches and closed my eyes…. My bones were cold. I could isolate the icy scent of pine trees that sneaked through the walls. Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.” (Anne Lamott, “Grace (Eventually)”) Lamott elevates this a bit more, endowing the odor with meaning. Finally, here’s Price again, taking the odor of the woman and making it meaningful for the narrator:

“As they left the apartment, heading for a restaurant, Ray became aware that Danielle’s perfume would still be in the air a few hours from now when he returned, just hanging there like an unmitigated longing, and there would be nothing he could do about it.” (Richard Price, “Samaritan”)

Your prompt for today has two parts. First, add the scent/order/smell to an existing scene in a basic way, just as an additional descriptor for the setting. Then, take a scene—either this same one, a different one, or a new one—and add scent/odor/smell in a more complex way, to tell us something about a character, or use it metaphorically.