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Olfactory Imagery

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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 olfactory imagery! Writers use imagery in their writing to make it more colourful and appeal to the readers’ senses. Olfactory imagery is used to appeal to the readers’ sense of smell.

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?

Olfactory imagery is a literary technique that stimulates the readers’ nose and sense of smell. 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

Here are some text examples where olfactory imagery has been used:

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 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 StudySmarter

Olfactory imagery can be used to describe the smell of food - StudySmarter Original

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!

Adjectives

Using plenty of adjectives 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 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 T.W Longfellow's poem 'Rain in summer'.

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.

Final Olfactory Imagery Quiz

Question

Which sense does olfactory imagery appeal to?

Show answer

Answer

Smell

Show question

Question

Which adjective is commonly used to describe smell?

Show answer

Answer

Pungent

Show question

Question

Why do writers use imagery?

Show answer

Answer

To appeal to the readers' senses and paint a mental picture for them.

Show question

Question

How can olfactory imagery be created?

Show answer

Answer

With descriptive language, adjectives, and figurative language. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following texts contains olfactory imagery? 

Show answer

Answer

The rich and velvety aroma of the coffee awoke her from her slumber. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following texts contains olfactory imagery? 

Show answer

Answer

She opened the door and was instantly greeted with the undeniable smell of black mould.

Show question

Question

What is a nostalgic smell?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

True or false, olfactory imagery appeals to the readers' sense of tase?

Show answer

Answer

False. It appeals to the sense of smell.

Show question

Question

What are the five senses?

Show answer

Answer

Sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.

Show question

Question

Which of the following texts contains olfactory imagery?

Show answer

Answer

He wrapped his arms around her and inhaled the familiar smell of coconuts and jasmine.

Show question

Question

What are the two most common ways to create olfactory imagery in writing?

Show answer

Answer

With adjectives and figurative language 

Show question

Question

Select the adjective used to describe good smells

Show answer

Answer

Tantalising 

Show question

Question

Select the adjective used to describe bad smells

Show answer

Answer

Nauseating 

Show question

Question

Complete the saying;

Show don't ___.

Show answer

Answer

Tell

Show question

Question

What is the difference between gustatory and olfactory imagery?

Show answer

Answer

Gustatory imagery appeals to the readers' sense of taste. On the other hand, olfactory imagery appeals to smell.

Show question

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