Writing Smelly Scenes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop #amwriting

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Fragrance is everything, a quote by C. JoyBell C.


“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.”

~Ryne Hall from DIY MFA  


While scanning through some of my writing articles this week, I saw a quote from Stephen King on writing smell into  suspense. I couldn’t remember the article, but I do think it’s an important reminder for all of us to explore the senses, especially smell and sound.  

Why is smell so creepy?  

Ever come across a moment in your own life when you walked into a new atmosphere immediately overwhelmed with the smell? A house reeking of cat urine odor? A park with a sprouting garden of roses? The smell of an old fountain from the metal to the green moss in the water? What about the chlorine in a swimming pool and how the strength of it sticks to your skin long after a swim?

An unusual smell can unsettle our mind and our stomachs. We make associations with certain smells with specific memories both good or bad. I’ve heard from firefighters how important a can of coffee grounds is when facing emergency scenes on the road. Take away the smell and the mind releases some of the emotion and the scene doesn’t necessarily seem so bad.

According to the article by Ryne Hall, the best place to insert smell “is immediately after the point-of-view character” shows up at a new scene. Most of the time, the first impression is the exact place to insert your description. To help show you what struck me as vivid smelly scenes, I have three books with three small excerpts from Daughters Unto Devils, Hannibal, and IT.

In Daughters Unto Devils, one of my absolute favorite suspense novels by Amy Lukavics, chapter seven introduces a very hard turn of events. A family is traveling by covered wagon to hopefully find an abandoned cabin to refurbish as their own. The cabin they find appears great from a distance, but when making an up-close inspection, everyone in the family wants to immediately abandon it except their dad.  

As we approach the door, it’s difficult to ignore the putrid stench that seems to be growing heavier with each step. “Ugh,” I say and inch my nose. “What is that?” It’s too much for Hannah. She begins to scream, clawing into the air as if she wants to swim out of Ma’s arms and away from the door, and we’re forced to wait in the odor while mom runs to set the baby back in the wagon … (CHAPTER SEVEN)  

In IT by Stephen King, chapter two talks about the fear of a little boy George in the dark:

  “He did not even like opening the door to flick on the light because he always had the idea—this was so exquisitely stupid he didn’t dare tell anyone—that while he was feeling for the light switch, some horrible clawed paw would settle lightly over his wrist … and then jerk him down into the darkness that smelled of dirt and wet dim rotted vegetables.” {page 6}

In Hannibal by Thomas Harris, a great scene in chapter one uses smell to illustrate how alone Agent Starling feels in the center of her male coworkers while they wait in a van for the crime scene to unfold:

“Starling felt pierced and lonesome in this goat-smelling surveillance van crowded with men. Chaps, Brut, Old Spice, sweat and leather. A mental image: her father, who smelled of tobacco and strong soap, peeling an orange with his pocket knife, the tip of the blade broken off square, sharing the orange with her in the kitchen. The taillights of her father’s pickup disappearing as he went off on the night-marshal patrol that killed him. His clothes in the closet…

Yep. So smell is my tip this month. Use it. Scatter it in.  

“The mere mention of a smell evokes memories and triggers associations in the reader’s subconscious. “ ~Ryne Hall from DIY MFA

About Erika Beebe

Author, dreamer, and a momma to a couple of wonderful kids, I try to live life everyday in hope and inspire others along my way.

Posted on May 20, 2020, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Louise Brady, Author

    Great post, and excellent examples. I need to work more on this in my stories as I always forget about the other senses 🙂

  2. Smell was difficult for me at first. I gradually got better at adding it. Amazing how a smell can trigger a memory so strongly.

  3. I love incorporating smell, but it’s so easy to overlook. But smell, more than anything else, can trigger our memories and take us back. Definitely a good tool. Thanks for reminding us!

  4. Great post on scent. Yes, scent is very important. My nose must be like a dog’s because I first notice smell.

  5. I never knew that stinky could be so useful. Okay, I did but never used it to this degree. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  6. I like the suggestion about when to insert smell–“immediately after the POV character arrives”. Now I have to rewrite a bunch of scenes!

  7. Those are really good examples. I know I don’t use smells enough.

  8. I really like the attention to the specific sense of smell–typically I see advice addressing sensory imagery in general, but I really like how you look at smell differently, and I think you’re right! The advice about putting it right away at the start of the scene I really like too. It really is a great way of pulling the reader in. Thanks for these tips and examples! : )

  9. I can’t stress how brilliant I think the title of this post is. I have blog post title envy, and I have it bad. My favorite smell in the world is the unique way the library I lived by as a child used to smell. I’ve smelled something similar a couple of times since moving away, and it always brings me back. I hadn’t known that about firefighters. What a cool factoid. Love it. I’ve been way more in tune with my own sense of smell lately, just because I’m so afraid of losing it, and that being a sign of COVID. We’ve got a scented candle at our entryway in case anyone wants to check.

  10. Ronel Janse van Vuuren

    Interesting take on smell. I’ll remember to add it sooner in scenes 🙂

    Ronel catching up for Feb Author Toolbox day Writing Characters: A Case Study

  11. Great post and tips. Enjoyed the samples.

  12. Scents and smells are the sensory elements I use the least, probably because my own sense of smell isn’t the best. Something to work on…

  13. Victoria Marie Lees

    Yes but you see Erika, Stephen King terrifies me. So any smell or bit of description he may offer makes me lose sleep. All best to you, my dear!

  14. Absolutely, smells can cause such visceral gut reactions. I try to remember to include them when I’m creating a scene.

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