I am a lifelong writer, who was also born without an ability to smell. I have been trained to engage the reader by applying the five senses, or as many of the five as is practical without becoming excessive. My problem is that I am straight up missing a sense.

Think of a writer who was born blind, and has created stories by dictating them to software or a person. But they're writing characters who aren't blind. How would that person write vision, so that the readers can really feel it?

Or a writer who was born deaf, totally alien to any concept of sound, but none of their characters are hard of hearing. Obviously, they could write one or more characters who are, and would present a really interesting perspective on that. But how do they describe sounds to people who know what that is like?

I have tried for my entire life to interview people and gain an understanding of this missing sense. Unfortunately, it's just not part of my cognition. I know garbage and armpits and rotting meat smell bad. I know baking bread, fresh cut grass, and many flowers have pleasant odors. But I struggle to do more, and most often forget entirely to add smell to my story. As though everyone in that world shares my disability.

What can I do, beyond just using words like "good, bad, strong," or "sweet," words that carry over into other senses, to give readers an experience like they are there?

  • 4
    This should probably go on Writing.SE. You'll get more writing-related advice there, which include descriptions of scenes and environments.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 20:18
  • 1
    Flagged for possible migration to Writing. Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 21:59
  • -sigh- And how do I move it to Writing? I am pretty new to Stack Exchange. Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 22:42
  • So there's an answer here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/85017/… tl;dr. Copy the text, paste it into a new question on writing exchange, because the system moving the question requires a moderator, and it will be quicker to make a new question there.
    – Hink
    Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 23:00

2 Answers 2


Fun question, and I think there are just three main things to remember that will really let you pull this off.

1: Smells don't tend to have a base set of pieces to construct them. So with vision something might be made of a combination of squares and colors and light, or in taste a combination of salty and sweet. But with smells, we perceive them usually just as the thing itself (due to the large variety of receptors). By which I mean, pine is described as pine, lemon as lemon, armpit as armpit, etc. A list of scents in a candle shop covers pretty much most of pleasant vocabulary. Slight exception to this rule is people, who tend to only have a really recognizably unique good scent in attraction scenarios.

2: Smell has a different nerve route through the brain than other senses. It is closest to the memory centers. So if you want to get more advanced with your smell descriptions, you mention that they remind the character of something. "The rain brought him back to that night in Paris, running through the wet grass." Or, "It smelled of the forest he played in as a kid."

3: Really bad smells create a visceral reaction. They make you want to throw up, which makes for good descriptions. Especially because REALLY bad smells hit you so hard they almost feel physical. In middle ages smells got so bad that they thought evil smells created a miasma that caused many diseases. Although, strangely, which smells are bad is not at all a universal concept (which is why the military can't create a great smell based weapon, despite trying). But, most writers ignore this bit and just go for the generalities.


Smell is easily the most supernatural seeming of the five traditional senses. It is one of our oldest sense, older than hearing, vision, possibly even taste, and it is the only sense which works the same across most organisms regardless of size.

The best way to think of smell if you don't have it is to think of it like how dogs and other animals seem to have a supernatural ability to sense things. You inhale and all of a sudden the information is just there, despite the fact that your eyes and ears haven't noticed anything and what you are sensing could have happened hours ago. If you have context for whay you're sensing it can seem like magic foresight. This is why animals reacting to weird smells almost comes across as supernatural.

The best way to describe what smells are like is taste. Most things taste identical to how they smell, though some things taste more pungent than they smell and smell more pungent than they taste (ice cream, for example, tastes great but has a very faint smell). In fact smell receptors and taste receptors are the same thing, one is just adjusted for air and the other is adjusted for physical contact or water (i.e., saliva). That's the whole point of the two, smell gives a preview of a food item to let you know it will taste good going down and is worth eating.

The good news is that smell is the sense most people think about the least, and lacking olfactory sensory description is not going to be as noticeable as lacking reactions to sight and sound.

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