Writing Tips: How to Describe Setting Using Smell
We have all experienced a moment where we have smelt a familiar odour and it has transported us back in time to a particular memory. Perhaps something as simple as the aroma of coffee has conjured vivid memories from the past.
So in light of the positive feedback on my post about How to Describe Setting Using Touch, I figured there could be no better follow-up sense to explore than smell. After all, if an aroma can make us vividly recall past memories, what better way to get our readers absorbed into the setting of our novels or short stories?
I’m a teacher as well as a writer, so in a lesson focused on using the five senses to describe setting, I asked my students to close their eyes and imagine that they were at the beach.
“What do you smell?” I asked.
“Damien’s B.O., Miss.”
Once the giggles subsided, I got some serious answers. “Saltwater.” “Salt.” “It smells tangy.” “Salty.”
Okay, so they are only Year 7s, but even as adults we have a tendency to fall back on the same descriptions. But writing about “the salty tang of the air” is pretty generic, and tells us nothing about our character’s connection with (and perception of) the beach setting.
“Let’s try again,” I suggested, splitting the class in half. This time I showed them four pictures — a beach, a desert, a forest, and a crowded marketplace. I told my students on the left side of the room that their character absolutely LOVED the setting they were describing, whereas the students on the right had to demonstrate to the reader how much their characters LOATHED the settings, all through the use of smell.
Then I stood back and watched the magic happen.
A beautiful thing occurs when we describe our setting not in isolation, but with the understanding that our character has some sort of connection with this setting (or similar settings) and therefore has a particular point of view on it.
“The putrid stench of the rotting seabird carcass overwhelms the harsh tang of the salt.” Not bad for a twelve year old, and I think you can tell which side of the room he was sitting on.
The contrast between the marketplace smell descriptions was also fascinating, because the students were, in all respects, describing the same smells, but with different underlying connotations.
“The exotic aroma of spices combined with the fruity waft from the perfume stall….”
Compare this with the “discord of odours accosting my senses,” and the “pungent stink of perfume.”
Yep, the kids got it — and boy did it improve their writing. Used well, describing the smell of the setting can do wonders to bring it alive for our readers.
So where could we start when thinking about smell?
Of course, there is such a thing as too much description, but it seems more common for writers to use too little rather than too much!
There are some excellent examples of books where the author has done a great job of describing setting using the senses. I am reading Lifel1k3 by Jay Kristoff at the moment, and I love the way he successfully evokes a strong sense of place through sensory language as well as figurative language.
How about you, do you use smell to describe setting? In my latest novel, emotions are banned, so my character imagines that emotions like anger or love might have a particular taste or smell. Do you have a favourite example of a book that describes setting well? Comment below.