How to Concoct Powerful Descriptions with Smell
From foul to fair, smells evoke emotions and memories
I was reading Julie Orringer’s novel, “The Flight Portfolio,” the other day, and several of her descriptions made my nose flare. I was brought to full attention with the power of her olfactory descriptions:
“The smell of it was a tonic, that particular tang of salt and wet wood and sailcloth.”
“He smelled, he discovered, of sandalwood and mint.”
“…ripe piss, ancient cabbage, dead and rotting rat — was on Danny's skin, in his hair, in the fibers of his suit; Varian inhaled that scent like a penance.”
A public bathroom:
“He waited all night at the Brigade des Rafles, and at dawn, he washed his face in a lavatory reeking of ammonia and dead mouse.”
New York City in the early 1940s:
“A great roaring, like the rush of water down the Niagara; a great glimmering, thousands upon thousands of windows pushing up into the sky; the smell of garbage, smell of roasting nuts, ammoniac stink of tar, sweet cloud of gasoline, burning leaves from the park, popcorn scent from the open cinema doors; here was that which he insisted on calling itself his home…”
Such nose-worthy offerings made me think about the sense of smell and how, as a writer, I can use it to make descriptions more powerful. I want to hook my readers not just with sights and sounds, but with scents.
The nose is connected to the heart
A human being can distinguish 1 TRILLION odors and are even more sensitive to certain scents than dogs. Do humans have a trillion words for smells? No. But if a human’s sense of smell is so wide-ranging, writers should use the words we do have to make odor an integral element of description.
The sense of smell has been called the step-child of the senses, in part because smells are hard to describe, and in part, because many smells are gross and disgusting. Think sour milk and rancid meat.
But other smells are unique and bring automatic joy. Have you smelled the neck of a newborn baby? (An infant, by the way, recognizes the scent of the mother by the second day of his life.) How about “puppy breath”? And why is that “new car smell” is so appealing?
The power of smell comes from the fact that smells don’t have to go through the part of our brain called the thalamus like sight, sound, taste, and touch do. Smell goes directly to an area of the brain that processes emotion and memory.
The powerful connection between smells and memories
I walked into a store in Disneyworld. One whiff of a certain tobacco scent and I was instantly transported to my grandpa’s lap. I could see him. Feel him. Experience that moment over again — even though he’d been dead for years — because of that distinctive fragrance of his pipe-tobacco.
Once, a certain aftershave lingering in a crowd of passersby, stopped me in my tracks, and I was filled with longing. “He” had smelled just like that.
I was shopping for lotion. The lady opened a tube and said, “This is one of our most popular scents.” One sniff and tears rolled down my cheeks. I had to rush out of the store. The scent she had demonstrated was what my Mother had worn at the end of her life, and she had died just a week before. The pain that fragrance evoked was real.
“Smells could bring a person back clearer than pictures ever could.” — Anne Tyler
You’ve got your own examples, I’m sure. Knowing how powerful smell can be, use it to hook your reader.
Body odor isn’t really a bad thing
Each person has their own unique smell, like an aromatic fingerprint. In fact, “the scent of a woman,” (to channel Al Pacino,) or the scent of a man may be one of the key elements of physical attraction. Some scientists believe that the scent of a potential mate may be a way to protect our gene pools. People too close to you, don’t smell good to you. Even though you may not consciously be aware of it, their body odor wafts through your subconscious.
“I emitted some civetlike female stink, a distinct perfume of sexual wanting, that he had followed to find me here in the dark.” — Janet Fitch, White Oleander
In the future, scientists believe that companies may use scent as part of their trademark. (Think Cinnabon.)
Victims of crimes may be able to identify their attacker in a lineup by smell.
Emotions have their own scent, with an odor for nervousness, stress, and happiness. Scientists are beginning to think that smells are contagious. If you see your laughing friend and smile, you may also be smelling the scent of her joy — which makes you happy, too.
“Fear has a smell — as love does.” — Margaret Atwood
Do your characters have a smell? (Thank you, Louise Penny, for Inspector Gamache’s Rosewater and Sandalwood perennial fragrance.) Do your settings emit smell? Can you add a waft, a whiff, a sniff, a stench, a stink? Do you want to make your readers feel what you’re describing? Use the power of scent.
We think of roses and lilac and lavender when we think of good smells. There’s the smell of sea-spray, cow manure, urine, fresh-cut grass, corn tassels at harvest time. Cinnamon to curry. Blood to berries. Ashes and wood smoke to iron and dust. A trillion smells are out there just waiting for writers to use them in descriptions and evoke powerful responses.