From Writers in the Storm:
Great writers make their stories authentic by allowing us to experience what their characters hear, see, smell, taste, and touch—capturing the senses so we are fully involved. Adding sensory details about smell into your writing creates a stronger story bond for your reader.
Scent memory is potent.
Memories fade as time passes, but a faint whiff of a loved one’s perfume can send your mind’s eye smack into a scene from a forgotten past. Sense of smell is a person’s most robust sense. You can be in a familiar place with a blindfold on and your nose will let you know where you are.
- The sense of smell is more closely linked with memory than any other sense.
- It brings emotions to mind. We are attracted to each other by smell.
- It helps us survive. A foul smell warns us of danger, like when we smell food gone bad or smoke choking the air.
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Writers can use the sense of smell to show a character’s background or to move a plot forward.
Say your main protagonist is a child in an orphanage trying to come up with a way to run away from her situation. A fire breaks out somewhere in the building. She smells smoke, alerts whomever she can to the danger (she is a good-hearted character). Recognizing her chance to leave in the chaos, she grabs her belongings and runs, thereby moving the story forward.
Ways to develop a sense of smell in writing.
Our brains are wired in a way that makes us hyper-alert to unfamiliar sensory information, including smells. If you want to unsettle you characters, add in rotting, chemically, goosebump raising smells into your story.
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Smelling recall of another time, person, or place
Smells can cause flashbacks to warm, wonderful times or a place of horror. The same smell can bring joy or pain dependent upon the individuals experience at the time they were exposed to that particular odor.
Some people love the smell of lilies. I cannot stand them. To me they reek of death. I don’t know why, and probably would need hypnosis therapy to figure it out.
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The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.” Bruce Barcott, Weed the People
“We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working. I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.” Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
“Chili dogs, funnel cakes, fried bread, majorly greasy pizza, candy apples, ye gods. Evil food smells amazing — which is either proof that there is a Satan or some equivalent out there, or that the Almighty doesn’t actually want everyone to eat organic tofu all the time. I can’t decide.” Jim Butcher, Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files
Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm