O is for Olfactory

by Lillian Csernica on April 16, 2013

Again and again we hear the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” I say, “Smell! Don’t tell!” Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste is the order of sensory priority I find in most of what I read. Neglecting to use the olfactory sense is a real loss.   Science has demonstrated how powerful the olfactory sense can be in stimulating memory. By stimulating the readers’ memories in ways that echo our characters’ experiences, we can heighten our readers’ connection to the characters and improve the depth of our writing.

In “Fallen Idol,” the first short story I sold, my hero wakes up to realize he’s been tied down on a wooden door:

“A strap bound my forehead and another clamped my mouth. The smell of old seat belt made me want to gag.”

If you know what an old seat belt smells like, you’ll understand immediately. I wanted to evoke decay, abandonment, something forgotten and left to rot.

Some common olfactory associations include movie theater lobbies and buttered popcorn; kindergarten classrooms and clay, glue, or crayons; hospital corridors and some pine-scented disinfectant; a casino and cigarette smoke. These associations are so real and so common that they cannot fall into the category of cliché. The use of key smells to make our characters and settings multi-dimensional will add richness and texture to our writing.

Take a moment to think about smells you love, smells you hate, smells that have powerful meaning for you. Write down these smells, your reactions, and the memories they evoke. This raw material could come in very handy.

Here’s my list:

  Pine-Sol, undiluted. Hospitals. Nursing homes. The place where my great-grandmother died. Sickness. Death.

Peppermint. Christmas. Candy canes. No point because neither John nor Michael can eat them. Loss of tradition makes me sad.

 Freshly mown grass. Green. Allergies. Asthma. Can’t breathe. Rescue inhaler. Nasty taste. Can’t play outside.

Rose incense. Church. Peace. Sunlight through stained glass. The jingle of the little bells on the censer as the priest swings it.

See what I mean? Smells are the doors to memory, leading to one association after the other. Do you have a favorite scent? One you avoid no matter what?


Filed under Blog challenges, fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Uncategorized, Writing

6 responses to “O is for Olfactory

  1. healthiestbeauty

    Reblogged this on The healthiest beauty.


  2. I try to remember to include smells when describing stuff in my stories. Not always easy either. It can be tricky to place what something smells like.


    • I know what you mean. When the action is moving forward and your main character has to think fast, there often is no time for him or her to “stop and smell the roses.” Some settings lend themselves better to smells, but finding one that fits the story can be difficult.

      Thanks for the comment!


  3. Funny you should say that, because my main character’s sense of smell figures hugely in the plot of my WIP. You’re so right! Great post, and thanks for your visit to Life is Good today.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    Co-host, April 2013 A-Z Challenge Blog
    @TinaLifeisGood, #atozchallenge


  4. The sense of smell is very strong. Incense — delightful, in so many “flavours.” But my wife would be incensed if I lit it up in the apartment.

    Blessings and Bear hugs!
    Bears Noting


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