The sense of smell is one of the most evocative senses, and probably the most difficult one to write about. In Stephen King’s On Writing, the chapter entitled ‘What Writing Is’ begins ‘Telepathy, of course.’ He describes how something imagined in the writer’s brain can then appear in a reader’s mind across huge distances: ‘We’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well’. The only tool used for this trick is some marks on a page (or screen). ‘We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-moutain shit; real telepathy,’ he says. In my writing I want to use this method to transmit as complete an experience as I can, so that has to involve all five of the senses.
Most descriptive passages in fiction concentrate on what can be seen, but purely visual descriptions can feel flat. They show a picture only. The best sensual description can bypass the consciousness and stimulate the imagination. That requires more than simply naming objects which affect sensory nerve endings. Good writing summons the experience of having those nerves stimulated.
To this end, onomatopoeia is a useful tool for describing sounds, as are colours for sights (or, indeed, Chekov’s light glinting on his glass). There are basic categories one can ascribe to taste and touch (bitter, rough etc), before a writer has to start crafting metaphors. Describing scents therefore poses a unique challenge.
Searching for examples of descriptions of smells to analyse has shown me just how underused this sense is in literature, which is a shame. When I did find a writer using good examples, they would only appear two or three times in a whole novel. Lots of novels contain no descriptions of smell at all. To find lots of good, varied, prolonged descriptions of scent to add to these examples, I therefore looked beyond fiction. I wanted to find a form of descriptive writing with smell at its core, so I decided to read some perfume reviews.
The whole point of a perfume, after all, is its smell. The task of a perfume reviewer is to transport scent by King’s method of telepathy, namely using words as its only tool, to give a reader a good idea of what a perfume smells like and, therefore, whether they might like to wear it. Perfume reviewers have had to invent ways to evoke scent and its effects. They differentiate elements in minute detail, and find the words to conjure the wide variety of smells they are reviewing. By seeing how they do that, I hope to learn writing skills which will be transferable to writing fiction.
In creative writing, one way in which a good effect can be achieved from describing smells is to list apparently dissonant smells which occur together, leaving the reader to imagine the combination. For example, in A Year of Marvellous Ways, Sarah Winman describes how in a dream, ‘A wind blows hot, a dry dusty wind that carries scents in its arms, scents Drake could never know, ones of baked earth and eucalyptus and frangipani, a collision, too, of salt and muck where sea meets farmland.’ Readers can conjure those smells on that list with which they are familiar, and so try to imagine the experience of smelling them in combination. In perfume reviews, such a listing of components is a good starting point, and that is where reviews on the perfume blog The Sniff begin.
It is easy to pick up the difference between a fragrance described as containing, for instance, ‘Camphor, cardamom, cedar, rose, tea, ho wood, musk, myrrh, pepper’ and one made up of ‘Bergamot, apple, banana, cashmere woods, powdery notes, lemon, patchouli, pineapple, vetiver, vanilla.’ One is spicier, the other fruitier. This listing method is extended evocatively in descriptions like ‘It smells of damp twigs, leathery, bitter leaves, cool evening air sweeping from the hills and the dampness of the forest.’
Daisy Johnson does something similar in Everything Under when she says that ‘The blankets smelled of old smoke and onions’ and when she describes a hospital as smelling ‘of soup warmed up in the staff microwave, burned toast, bleach.’ These scent listings, like the smells being described, tell us what has happened around or inside the blankets or hospital, they condense their own story as well as giving enough clues for us to know what the smell was like for ourselves. They contain the same jarring of elements as Winman’s exotic plants and salty mud, or as the perfume described on The Sniff as having ‘rose, festering away under the smokes and resins’.
To pass on an idea of how perfumes smell, though, it is not enough to simply list their ingredients. The interactions of chemicals, mental and sensory receptors and movement through the air, mean that the ingredients combined will smell different to their individual elements in sequence. The reviewer’s art is to transmit to us the experience of smelling that particular blend, to make us feel its effects.
The Sniff reviews break a perfume down into Top Notes, Heart Notes and Base Notes. In order to describe their olfactory harmony, the reviews then employ evocative general terms such as ‘warm, woody, dry and sexy’, ‘smoky, sweaty, oily spices’, and ‘a zesty, floral cloud’, or describe the scents in terms of other things we might recognise or be able to imagine, such as ‘the warmth of a spice, woodiness, and even greenery’, ‘the charred inside of whisky barrels’, ‘human bodies that are about to burst open and spoil’, or ‘a crisp white shirt, ironed and starched.’
More often than not, their descriptions employ similes, some more concrete than others. Stephen King says of similes: ‘The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction – reading it and writing it as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects […] we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way.’ Similes can also lead us towards imagining ‘friends’ we have not met yet.
When The Sniff describes a smell as being ‘Like sniffing the fingers of a smoker who is wearing freshly laundered clothes’ or ‘as if someone has left an upstairs window open on a spring day and you can make out wafts of cool outside air’ or ‘Like the fumes from a garden bonfire’, those phrases transmit precise recognition by bringing forward memories of things we have probably smelled. You are less likely to have experienced ‘the thick, heavy tar on the wood of a Norwegian stave church’, but you might have an idea of what it would smell like. Those descriptions have a concrete specificity, as does ‘If you inhale it close to the skin it smells like the pages of an old book warmed by the fireside, dry, old, beautiful,’ but when that sentence concludes ‘and full of secrets’, it progresses on to another kind of description.
Such abstract emotional similes describe how a perfume makes the reviewer feel, feelings which are likely to be similar to the reader’s, if they have had similar life experience. For instance, it is an evoked feeling not a scent which is described if a perfume ‘smells like old wisdom’, or ‘like a salve, a potion, a tincture; something compounded by Medieval peasants to chase away a fever’. Winman uses a similar technique in a Year of Marvellous Ways when she says of baking bread ‘And the smell fell over the creek like spring itself’.
The Sniff reviewer often usefully employs metaphors and similes derived from the other senses. One of the most frequent comparisons is with sound, particularly music. Firstly, there is the perfume industry’s widespread practice of talking about the elements of a scent as being ‘notes’. The Sniff extends this idea, writing about things like ‘a contrasting chime of notes’, or saying that ‘The sandalwood, jasmine and resins all hum along in this vibration’. Other senses are used too. Borrowed from the experience of sight, a scent can feel like ‘dark browns and greens’, or ‘as if the notes that make up the scent have been rendered in matt colours’, or ‘like watching a sped up video of fruit rotting’. From the sense of taste, the reviewer takes ‘chewy sweetness’ and ‘warm, but not hot, a little spicy, a little sweet’. From touch comes a feeling that a smell ‘evokes the texture of a slightly bobbled woollen jumper’, or is ‘soft from the tangerine but has a chalky texture from the iris which brings with it tiny touches of a leafy green here and there. What starts off as feeling crumbly on the nose smooths out gradually as the perfume wears.’
This last phrase contains not only the scents as experienced in the nose, but also the physicality of the experience of smelling them. When Ross Raisin writes, in God’s Own Country: ‘A fug of food wrapped round us – a Sunday smell of gravy, spuds roasting. And thick, gloopy stew bubbling away all the day’, as well as listing the scent elements of the experience (gravy, roast potatoes, stewed meat), and naming the memory evoked by them (childhood Sundays), Raisin also shows how the smell behaved physically, in that it ‘wrapped round us’. This gives the reader a feeling for how the characters interacted with the smell. The word ‘fug’ helps with this, too. Proust, in In Search of Lost Time, describes a fire in the protagonist’s aunt’s bedroom ‘plastering the whole room with a smell of soot’. A Sniff review of one perfume describes the physicality of wearing it as being ‘felt more than smelled, right at the back of the throat’. These are all solidly physical descriptions of smells making contact with something.
Proust goes on to use a metaphor of baking to describe how the bedrooms smells grew and travelled: ‘the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set”, puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie. And immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers and the patterned wallpaper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.’ Active verbs like ‘clotted’, ‘puffed’, and ‘swelled’ make these smells flow within the space, layering onto each other like the sheets in a puff pastry. The protagonist chooses which elements to concentrate on in turn. The bedspread provides the Base Note of the room in his memory, the soot the Top Note, and the cupboard, drawers and wallpaper are Heart Notes.
The Sniff also describes the way perfumes lie on the skin (with descriptions like ‘you are engulfed by ripe fruits’, and ‘the gentle thrum of cardamom sinks down beside you like a tabby cat.’) and the play of scents on the nose (describing smelling one perfume as ‘almost like a murmuration of starlings’, another as being ‘as light as a butterfly landing on rotten fruit or a fresh carcass’). The emotional and physical experiences of wearing a fragrance are combined in a phrase like: ‘It grows to feel like a witch’s familiar, purring about you, rubbing alongside you, protecting, enveloping’.
In A Year of Marvellous Ways, Winman writes that Drake ‘crouched down into the water and rubbed the soap hard between his hands and soon it lathered and the smell dug into him and he couldn’t remember the name of the smell – it was violet – but it was too good for him, that he knew.’ The idea of the soap smell digging into Drake is very physical here, but also emotional. The scent penetrates his body through his nose, but there is a violence to that, because he does not think he deserves it.
Smells can often bypass consciousness, unexpectedly conjuring memories. In those moments, it is the emotions, not the rational facts, of the past which appear. Seeing one’s old school might lead one to recall dates of attendance, names of teachers, the layout of the building, but a sniff of its corridors can transport you back to the anxieties and excitements of being eleven years old.
In Johnson’s Everything Under, scent is used to poignantly comment on the recent, relatively calm past after an awful action has changed things: ‘She lay still. It was quiet. There was the smell of the potatoes and onions Charlie had cooked earlier.’ The smell itself is not unusual, but it lives on within an unusual situation to point up the contrast between that ‘earlier’ when Charlie had cooked the potatoes, and the present in which Margot ‘lay still’.
Sometimes The Sniff reviewer describes how it feels to be inside the experience of the inhalation of a perfume by evoking situations, so one element might ‘remind[ed] us of eating windfall apples in the potting shed’ or be ‘as if we are cuddled up beside the owl, watching from his vantage point’. Sometimes this idea is more fully inhabited, as in this passage: ‘Imagine this: you’re on your favourite beach on the first warm day of the year. You’re the perfect temperature, not hot and sticky, just nice. You’ve taken off your shoes and can feel the sand between your toes. Earlier, you covered yourself in good suncream, and when you move you get wafts of delicious coconut rising from your body. A zephyr comes off the sea and you can practically feel your skin relaxing as the sunlight hits it for the first time this year. Ahead, a little stream runs down to the sea, and the breeze brings you hints of the wet pebbles, where fresh water meets saline. Your whole body smiles as you relax into vacation mode.’
Creative writing can also do the opposite, using smells to encourage the reader to imagine situations. In God’s Own Country, when the narrator is in a pub, he says ‘There was a table on the pavement and I made for that – it was fresher than the musty, dank parlour that smelt of a hundred damp dogs.’ The description of that smell transports the reader back to times when they have smelled the residue of damp dogs, to summon from memory places where that smell has hit them. The interior of that pub is summoned in that one phrase.
An entire setting can be, but seldom is, described in terms of scent. In EB White’s Charlotte’s Web, Chapter 3 is the first to be written from Wilbur the pig’s point of view. White uses the animal perspective to make smell the most prominent sense. The chapter begins: ‘The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fishhead to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead.’
White chooses olfactory description because he wants to show his reader how an animal might experience the barn, but by doing so he also tells us a lot about what was contained in the barn and what happened there. He goes beyond a pure listing, including a description of the emotional response elicited by that scent combination and the atmosphere of the barn, with the phrase ‘It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.’ Oddly, such a phrase can sometimes give us more of an idea of the smell itself than a concrete listing can do, as well as describing a character by showing their response. Equally, although no smell is mentioned, we get a good idea of what a perfume might be like when The Sniff reviewer says it is ‘so hugely masculine that it probably spreads its legs out wide on public transport and explains simple concepts to women’.
When I need to write about a setting, I often close my eyes and take a moment to imagine it fully first. Smell is very difficult to summon in this way. When smells hit us they are very good at pulling up memories, but it is hard to pull up the memory of a scent. In Everything Under, the protagonist makes an effort, at one point, to remember her mother, saying: ‘I rarely remembered faces or bodies. I thought of words you used to say: hooch, radiant, sludge. What had you smelled like? I put my wrist against my nose.’ She expects to be able to recall a person visually, but finds she can’t. She is a lexicographer, words are important to her, so she conjures her mother’s memory through the sounds of things she used to say. She tries to bring back her mother’s smell through her own. It is not made clear whether this works.
Generally when writing, the smell we want is not available like a bottled perfume to be opened and sniffed while we think up a description for it. As with other sensory descriptions, I find it helpful to think up descriptive phrases for situations while I am in them, so that I can later embed those in a piece of fiction writing. Particularly in the case of smells, this is easier than trying to remember or imagine the sensual experience.
Listing scent elements is a useful technique, but in future I am going to try to augment my descriptions of smells by invoking their physicality within a space and in the nose, using metaphors and similes from other senses, the memories of things which smelled similar, and abstract emotional descriptions, too.
Texts referenced and quoted:
Johnson, D, Everything Under, 2018
King, S, On Writing, 2000
Proust, M (trans Scott Moncrieff, CK & Kilmartin, T), Swann’s Way (Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time), 1913 (1981)
Raisin, R, God’s Own Country, 2008
The Sniff: https://the-sniff.com/ accessed 18/03/19
White, EB, Charlotte’s Web, 1952
Winman, S, A Year of Marvellous Ways, 2015