Olfactory Imagery

Have you ever read something so descriptive you felt like you could almost smell the words coming off the page? If so, you've experienced what olfactory imagery is! Writers use imagery in their writing to make it more colourful and appeal to the reader’s senses. Olfactory imagery is used to appeal to the readers’ sense of smell.

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    Before we dive into learning all about olfactory, let’s refresh our memories of imagery in language.

    What is Imagery in Language?

    It might be tempting to think that imagery is just about the use of images, but that isn’t the case! When we talk about imagery in language, we are referring to the mental images that readers create in their minds when reading.

    When imagery is done well, it paints a picture for the reader that appeals to their senses and leaves them feeling like they can see, feel, taste, hear, or touch what the writer is describing.

    The gentle waves crashed against the jagged rocks, creating a soft repetitive sound that soothed the soul. The crisp yet salty scent of the sea filled the air, and the sunset's warm yellow and orange hues spread across the vast sky. Life on the island was heaven.

    There are several different types of imagery, each used to captivate one of the senses. As there are five different senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch), there are five different types of imagery. These are:

    • Visual (sight)

    • Tactile (touch)

    • Olfactory (smell)

    • Gustatory (taste)

    • Auditory (sound)

    Today’s explanation is all about olfactory imagery, i.e. the imagery related to smell.

    What is Olfactory Imagery?

    So what is Olfactory Imagery? Olfactory imagery is a literary technique that stimulates the readers’ nose and sense of smell. This technique uses descriptive language to recreate or simulate the experience of smells. When the imagery is created well, the reader should be able to almost smell what the writer is describing.

    For example, when describing the smell of a piece of cake, a writer might use adjectives like ‘mouthwatering’ or ‘sweet’. They might even use a metaphor or a simile to liken the smell to something else, e.g. ‘the smell was like heaven.’

    Now we have a good idea of what olfactory imagery is, let’s look at some examples. We’ll show you some text with olfactory imagery and some without to demonstrate what a difference it can make!

    Olfactory imagery: examples

    Olfactory imagery, allowing readers to connect more deeply with the narrative by engaging their sense of smell. Here are some text examples where olfactory imagery has been used:

    1. 'The air was filled with the sweet aroma of ripening peaches, mingled with the crisp scent of fresh-cut grass.' This sentence creates olfactory imagery, letting readers imagine the smell of peaches and grass.

    2. 'Walking into grandma's house, I was immediately greeted by the warm, inviting scent of freshly baked bread and cinnamon.' This example gives a sense of the comforting and familiar smells in grandma's house.

    Here are some more examples:

    The sickly sweet smell of honeysuckle blossom hung heavy in the air. The sugary scent was so rich that Jess felt she might get a cavity.

    Hospitals always made her feel uncomfortable. The sterile smell of the waiting room, mixed with the pungent aroma of cheap coffee, evoked feelings of sadness.

    She smelt like sunshine on the first warm day of the year.

    Here are those same sentences again, except there is no use of olfactory imagery this time.

    It smelt of honeysuckle blossom.

    Hospitals always made her feel uncomfortable. The smell made her sad.

    She smelt nice.

    Notice how imagery helps add more depth and meaning to the sentences and appeals to the readers' sense of smell.

    When to use Olfactory Imagery

    We can use olfactory imagery in many different ways in our writing. Here are just a few examples:

    • To describe the smell of food, e.g. ‘He lifted the lid and sniffed. The hot, spicey, and aromatic scent was so strong it tickled his nostrils.’

    • To describe the smell of a place, e.g. ‘The floorboards squelched beneath her feet and the deep, dank, mouldy scent of the air got more intense with every step.

    • To describe a nostalgic smell, e.g. 'The sweet and tangy smell of hot pot filled my nostrils, and a wave of sadness crashed down on me. It had been two months, yet I still missed Beijing.

    Nostalgic smell - a thought-provoking smell which reminds you of some time or someone from the past.

    • To set the scene, e.g. ‘The room was warm and cosy, the comforting smell of homecooked risotto filled the air, and dad was snoring. I knew I was home.’

    Olfactory imagery Illustration of hot pot StudySmarterFig. 1 - Olfactory imagery can be used to describe the smell of food.

    Olfactory Imagery techniques

    Creating an excellent mental image of a smell is about describing its unique and defining features. For example, the reader should know if the scent is pleasant, horrid, tasty, or even nostalgic for a character. There are a few different ways to use olfactory imagery in your writing, but some of the most common ways olfactory imagery is achieved are with adjectives and figurative language.

    A helpful phrase to remember when creating imagery is ‘show, don’t tell’. For example, don’t tell the reader the cake smells nice; describe it to them. Remember, imagery should paint a picture for the reader - your aim is to use imagery to transport the reader to the smell!


    Using plenty of adjectives with your olfactory imagery will help paint a picture for the reader - be creative with these and try to avoid using the same adjectives again and again!

    Adjectives to describe pleasant smells:

    • Sweet

    • Fragrant

    • Flowery

    • Tantalising

    • Inviting

    • Comforting

    • Tangy

    • Fresh

    • Aromatic

    • Rich

    Adjectives to describe bad smells:

    • Pungent

    • Rancid

    • Nauseating

    • Dank

    • Putrid

    • Rotten

    • Sterile (often used to describe the smell of a hospital)

    • Musty

    • Sickly

    • Rank

    Can you think of any others?

    Figurative language

    The use of figurative language, such as metaphors, similes, hyperbole, and personification can be incredibly powerful in creating olfactory imagery.

    Take a look at the following example of olfactory imagery used in Stephen. M. Irwin's novel The Dead Path to see the effect of olfactory imagery in literature.

    'But a smell shivered him awake.

    It was a scent as old as the world. It was a hundred aromas of a thousand places. It was the tang of pine needles [..] It was the muscular rot of mushrooms. It was the spice of oak. Meaty and redolent of soil and bark and herb. It was bats and husks and burrows and moss. It was solid and alive - so alive! And it was close.' 1

    The use of similes ('a scent as old as the world'), personification ('it was solid and alive - so alive!), and hyperbole ('It was a hundred aromas of a thousand places'), help create a vivid mental image of the smells present in the woods. The use of olfactory imagery also helps to set the overall mood for the scene. After reading this passage, what do you think the genre of this story and the mood for this scene is?

    Irwin's novel The Dead Path is a horror novel with elements of the supernatural.

    Olfactory Imagery in poetry

    Take a look at this extract from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem 'Rain in Summer' (1866). Can you spot the olfactory imagery? How does the use of imagery add to the poem?

    The toilsome and patient oxen stand;Lifting the yoke encumbered head,With their dilated nostrils spread,They silently inhaleThe clover-scented gale,And the vapors that arise

    From the well-watered and smoking soil.

    Olfactory Imagery - Key Takeaways

    • Olfactory is a type of imagery that appeals to the readers' sense of smell.
    • Imagery is a literary technique writers use to help 'paint' a mental picture for the reader.
    • An example of olfactory imagery is, 'The sickly sweet smell of honeysuckle blossom hung heavy in the air.'
    • Olfactory imagery can be created with descriptive language, adjectives, and figurative language.
    • Some common adjectives used to describe smell are: sweet, pungent, rancid, musty, aromatic, dank, fresh, and floral.

    1. S. M. Irwin. The Dead Path. 2010.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Olfactory Imagery

    What is olfactory imagery?

    Olfactory imagery refers to the use of descriptive language to evoke or represent smells or scents in the reader's mind. This type of imagery engages the sense of smell.

    What is an example of olfactory imagery?

    An example of olfactory imagery could be: 'The fresh pine scent of the forest was invigorating, mixed with the earthy aroma of damp soil.' In this sentence, the descriptions of the scents of pine and damp soil create a vivid sensory experience for the reader.

    What sense is evoked by olfactory imagery?

    Olfactory imagery evokes the sense of smell. It describes scents, aromas, or odors in such a way that the reader can almost smell what is being described.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following texts contains olfactory imagery?

    Which sense does olfactory imagery appeal to?

    Which adjective is commonly used to describe smell?


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