Story Bite 23: Finding Your Beginning Through Smell

Students often struggle with the beginning of a piece of writing. (So do many published authors as well.)  This is the second series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—that offers tips for students on how to jump-start a scene through the senses. Using sensory elements can put the reader—and the writer—directly into a piece of writing. For this post, we’re focusing on smell.

Smell creates an instant reaction—emotional and otherwise! Think of walking into a room that has a bouquet of fragrant lilies on the table…or a dog that passes gas on the rug on the floor. Smell hits us, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a way that makes us want to turn around and walk out.

Photo: Diane Magras

Think of how you would respond to the following:

  • The sweet scent of lilacs
  • The brisk scent of the ocean and seaweed
  • The bitter scent of burning rubber (like a tire when a car skids)
  • The heavy scent of freshly-baked cinnamon bread

What would your reaction be to those odors? Create your own list of smells that soothe you, irritate you, make you hungry, or make you want to get away as fast as possible. If you can’t easily think of some, here are four more:

  • The husky scent of a pond
  • The heavy scent of wood smoke on a snowy day
  • The thick scent of air freshening spray
  • The sharp scent of a passing skunk

How would you react to these scents? What would be happening as your character is smelling them? Where is your character? Are they with anyone else? Are they expecting something to happen? What kind of mood are they in? The crisp scent of the ocean could inspire a sick feeling (someone who picks up the scent of dead fish or crabs)—or it could inspire a smile (someone who grew up by the ocean and finds comfort in it)

Starting your piece of writing with a scent that evokes an emotion will give you the first words of a beginning, then more to write about: the situation your character is in.

For this Story Bite, think of a scent (or pick one from one of my lists above). If you can, find it and smell it (or just remember what it smells like, or try to imagine). What’s your reaction? Write down a description of that sound. Make it quick (The scent of the sea was brisk and clean.) or link it with your character (That ocean smell made me want to throw up.) and then write what comes next: how your character responds. For example:

The scent of the sea was brisk and clean. He leaned back, his hands on the railing, and closed his eyes. This scent meant home.


That ocean smell made me want to throw up. The beach was empty, but I smelled all those pogies that had washed ashore and died and then rotted on that beach when I was six.

What comes next after your character’s initial reaction? Where are they? What are they doing? Write that down. Who is with them, or are they alone? Add that. What do they do in reaction to that scent? What happens after that? Write that as well.

Scent is a less traditional way to start a scene than sound or sight, but it can puts your reader directly into your character’s mind without too much trouble. And it might put your mind right into your story too.

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