All About Smell and Storytelling

How to use nice and revolting smells in our storytelling practice (and some smell inspirations you will love.)

Smell is linked more closely to memory than any of our other senses. It is also the most closely linked to our emotions.

As a professional storyteller, I aim to conjure up worlds in the listeners mind and imagination. Smell is the perfect assistant!

Don’t forget that some audience members might have smell sensitivities of various kinds so it’s wise not to ambush your audience with a scent.

Research shows that when a listener hears a story, parts of their brain involving action (not just listening) are stimulated. So when  you add smells into the mix, you should theoretically be able create a multisensory brain explosion in your lucky audience…

Pre-planned smell in a story is often used to animate the tale for the elderly- or more generally for people who need a multi-sensory element to their performance. It’s commonly used for audiences with additional needs. But there are more possibilities too.

Here are some ideas:

Nice Smells

There are commercially available “smell cubes” which work best passed around with a small group or one to one. For example Funfair Selection contains Candy Floss, Toffee Apple, Cinder Toffee, Peppermint rock. These are designed to trigger specific memories and reminiscences. They are fun but with a bit of thought and effort you could probably make your own.

You can burn a candle or incense with a theme which complements your story. Obvious example is a story which involves food!  (and especially if your story comes from a certain culture then the smell of food from that culture can really bring it to life.)

In the V&A they tell a story about spices which involves passing around cinnamon sticks in a basket.

You can use a water spray with scent added to the water- this allows the smell to last for a moment or two not the whole story. If you’re looking for something to add to water, check out the amazing “Library of Fragrance” :  powder, vanilla, play doh, rain, gin and tonic etc!

As well as directly illustrating the story, smells can add a counterpoint or another dimension, it’s all about being creative.

Nasty Smells

A lot of milage and fun to be had with bad smells.

If I want to tell a story for kids about a horrible dirty room full of rotten food, filthy water or a person who never washes… or a really smelly rotten fish, bad smells are a great attention-getter and focus point!

Stink bombs in a jar are good (I use empty spice jars with a flip-top-lid and keep a bit of the spice in there to soak up the liquid). Chamois Leather has an ‘interesting’ smell. One of the worst smells I’ve ever had was artificial fishing bait. it made me want to vomit whenever I opened the box.

(Pic: what fishing bait smells like.)

I try to have a few jars of the same smell to hand so they can be passed quickly around and people don’t have to wait too long to have a go.

Obviously we should be sensitive to people’s wishes- if they don’t want to smell anything they shouldn’t be forced to!

Smells in baskets, boxes or jars work better when you have a fairly small group, spray or candles/ burners can work for bigger groups.

I would like to finish this post with a salute to some of my olfactory inspirations. I hope they inspire you too:

  • When I was working at HRP Kensington Palace, they had just developed a scratch and sniff map of the palace with different smells (flower water, fireplace etc) for different rooms. Yes really!
  • I just bought a “Dumbledore’s office” scented candle (They have been forced to change the name to to “headmasters office” due to copyright reasons.) There’s a great range of Narnia, Sherlock and Hogwarts inspired candles to choose from.
  • Number one inspiration for me is the fabulous Odette Toilette; one of the most fascinating performers out there who works with historical fragrances. *Mummy unwrapping*! I’ve worked along side her at events before, always a treat!

(Below: Smelling Slimy mud)