Creating the senses in writing: smell

Sense of success

A common piece of advice in writing is to use all five of the human senses. I think this is especially important in romance and erotica, when you’re creating something sensual, that needs to appeal to and gratify the senses.

It’s relatively (relatively!) easy to focus on the visual and the auditory. The ‘easiest’ to neglect are probably taste and smell. Sights and sounds will have individual connotations, but the gustatory and olfactory are, arguably, more personal still.

Let’s focus on smells. A particular odour can ‘take you there’, the gritty damp of concrete to a cell; frying pancakes to your childhood kitchen. Then think of your favourite smells – hyacinths perhaps, baking bread, fresh coffee, or jasmine? Then again it may be something more complex, the garden after rainfall, say. That may include wet earth, damp stone, crushed petals releasing their scents; the freshened grass, as if green itself were an odour. That is, if you live in a temperate climate.

How to capture something as personal and elusive as smell?

Or your ‘top five’ smells may include something even more personal, such as the scent of your baby’s head. Or of your lover. If you have one. And if you love them. Not long ago I read a quote from performance artist Marina Abramović, who said of her former partner: That was the moment I stopped liking his smell. And the moment I stopped liking his smell, it was over.”1 How relatable.

What can be more personal than your reactions to the smell of your beloved; what can be better if you’re in love or in lust with them? And what can be more off-putting if you do not like the way someone smells?

Nobody farts in erotica

Once you’re hooked in to someone, of course much can be forgiven. A study in the Netherlands back in 2012 demonstrated how arousal had the strength to prevail over ‘disgust’2.  So really, if you want to show the lust or love between partners, one way would be to have one of them break wind, or return home redolent with body odour, yet remain irresistible to the other.

But nobody farts in romance or erotica, do they? Unless you want to start a niche sub-genre in olfactophilia-based stories. (I believe that ‘olfactophilia’ is sexual arousal by body smells, particularly those of the genital area). Okay, wouldn’t be surprised if that’s already been done.

Scents of connection

So how can we use smells, which are so much a matter of personal preference and emotion, to convey attraction and erotic fulfilment? Especially given odours are so elusive? Just as in real life, we do not necessarily want our lovers to reek of some synthetic, off-the-shelf perfume.

In one story I tried to describe the effect of a woman’s scent on her lover, as something like fruit and something like fresh seaside air, but not the precise same as either.” trying to relate smells to something tangible yet also catch their indefinability. Not sure that was successful, but as with any writing, it is all part of the ongoing effort to capture something in words that will create connection.

Attempting to convey something that, as the (brilliant) novelist Rose Tremain put it will “…feel truthful and real to the reader3.


1. ‘Marina Abramović in her own words: ‘Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?’  in The Guardian,, retrieved 10 April 2018.

2. ‘Feelings of Disgust and Disgust-Induced Avoidance Weaken following Induced Sexual Arousal in Women’, Borg, C. & de Jong, P. J. 12-Sep-2012,, retrieved 10 April 2018.

3. Rose Tremain: ‘Truth, insomnia and waiting for inspiration in Norwich John Lewis’ in The Observer,, retrieved 10 April 2018.


10 thoughts on “Creating the senses in writing: smell

  1. Reblogged this on Libre Paley and commented:

    What exactly are we smelling when we smell ‘fresh air’?
    So asked a question in The Guardian newspaper’s Notes & Queries column a couple of weeks ago.
    Answers searched to explain it, some to describe it, all feeling their way in a varying combination of science, description, comparison, and humour.
    It’s… “similar to the short-lived smell of washing dried outside.” Or “simply absence of smell.” To do with “water vapour.” And “Like the pleasure of ‘hearing’ silence.” Also “Depends on when I last showered…” One person responded “I’ve never noticed people smelling of ‘fresh air’ when they come inside in the winter,” which goes to show that we never know as when each of us as individuals is experiencing the same thing.
    Yet we know it can be a strongly evocative even deeply nostalgic sense, which can set a mood or conjure up a place, a person, an experience, in few words. It’s personal—not just our own personal scent but what we enjoy smelling and the feelings, thoughts, and memories that we attach to them.
    A few months ago, I considered the challenge describing smell in writing as one of the senses that can be overlooked, and with some of the above considerations in mind…


  2. Important post. I have just finished reading A. S. Byatt’s ‘The Conjugial Angel’ where a character in a séance conjures up a sweet smell which everyone else imagines they sense, whilst being afraid to mention the dog’s farts 🙂


    1. A.S. Byatt’s writing is so sensual, though I haven’t read The Conjugal Angel – yet. But exactly so, the smells are as legitimate if bad, such as farts, as when pleasant. Maybe that’s why smell description a are sometimes missing, because it’s associated with a romantic or saccharine sniffing of rose blooms. 🌹

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post & very well written (as always 😉)…I never thought about it. But I think I’m usually using comparison (opposites) & maybe – “heavy” words. I don’t know how to explain but “light” adjectives & words for nice smells, “heavy” for bad smells 🙂 🧐🤨🤪

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Light and heavy words – that’s a new concept for me. I am going to try it out as my writing needs better balance. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s so true that I do not give taste and smell their due attention when it comes to sense descriptions. That’s something to add to my list of things to work on as I revise my WIP.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess also that compared to describing the visual, in introducing taste and smell, a little can go a long way.

      Liked by 1 person

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