This past year, I wrote a short story that involved a room full of people watching a person die. I sent it to a friend of mine to get some feedback, and he pointed out a very important detail I forgot that would’ve helped with the visceral effect of the story. He said, “Don’t forget about your sense of smell”.
Sensory language might be one of the greatest tools to use in your writing. We experience the world through our senses, relying on some more heavily than others. When describing a scene, we rely on our sight to lay out the characters, hearing and touch to paint the setting, and smell and taste to flesh out the world.
I tend to forget smells. Which I find rather weird, admittedly — I feel like most people forget taste. But I have a habit of describing how the air in an area tastes before I discuss the aromas around.
Smell can be such a powerful sensation. Out of all five senses, smell links closest to our memories. Ever catch a whiff of fresh baked cookies and find yourself whisked away to your grandmother’s kitchen? Or smell a hint of hibiscus on the breeze and flashback to your childhood best friend’s backyard?
The odors in an environment can help you inch your story’s setting closer to reality. It’s a simple detail, but an effective one.
Smell can even indicate the time of year your story takes place during, especially around the holidays. Regardless of what you celebrate, there’s probably some signature scent you can associate with your holiday. Implementing those aromas into your story will bring the reader into the atmosphere of your writing.
This December, take the time to pay attention to the smells around you. If you’re at the store, take note of the scent of the shops — do they have spices? Candles? Detergent? What’s the predominant scent? If you’re at home, go to your kitchen and soak up the odors. What’s cooking, and how would you describe the aromas? Do they stir up any memories? If you can stand the weather, go for a walk. How is your environment different when it’s cold out? Are there any evergreen trees around?
The more effective sensory images you can include, the stronger your world-building and scene painting will become. What better time to experiment with scents than the holidays?
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.