Sunday, November 4, 2012

Smell Discrimination

A few weeks ago, a mom in Seattle was kicked off a city bus because of the stench of her baby’s dirty diaper. The four-month pregnant woman had to walk a mile and a half with her sick child to the pediatrician’s office. (Yes, you read right. Here’s the full story.) Honestly, I doubt that the offensive diaper was the foulest smell to ever roost in that bus (let’s face it, public transportation is well-known to host the worst stenches ever known to humankind), but aside from my outrage on behalf of the mother-in-question, I started thinking about the undermined importance of our sense of smell.

A smell can attract us to a person, food and place, or it can repel us. Smell is perhaps the most evocative of senses. Have you ever smelled a perfume, oil or detergent that brought back memories of your childhood or youth? I read somewhere that “a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a scent is worth a thousand memories.”

Certain scents can be soothing, such as incense, baby powder or the smell of grass after the rain; and certain aromas can remind us that we’re hungry. Have you noticed how we associate the smell of popcorn with movies, pizza with airports and cinnamon rolls with malls?

As writers, we spend most of our efforts on visual descriptions and sounds (what and how a character says something) a little less on touch and taste, but rarely do we bother with smell. So why do we omit it? Perhaps because this sense is more subjective (some may like a particular scent but others may not), plus it’s not easy to define (how do you describe the scent of a man without mentioning a specific cologne, soap or sweat?) Sometimes you may not know what something smells like with accuracy (do you know what a sugar cane field smells like?)

Describing smells can sometimes be risky because it can give readers a very definite mental image that they may not associate positively to your character. For example, in my first novel, the protagonist’s love interest is constantly smoking (hey, it’s the 60’s!) so I have a scene where the main character recognizes his presence based on the smell of cigarette and mint. One of my beta readers was turned off by my hero because of his scent (and thought that a contemporary audience wouldn’t be attracted to a man like this) but another reader thought it was an endearing quality that he tried to cover up the scent of smoke with mints.

In Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates describes smells often and he does it in conjunction to other sensory details to give the reader a more vivid description of place.

“Then he was following her hips up a dim carpeted stairway, and then a door had clicked shut behind him and he was standing in a room that smelled of vacuum cleaning and breakfast bacon and perfume, a high, silent room where everything lay richly bathed in yellow light from windows whose blinds of split bamboo had turned the sun into fine horizontal stripes of tan and gold.”

Smell is also a device Yates uses to transition into characters’ memories through flashbacks or backstory.

“The smell of school in the darkness, pencils and apples and library paste, brought a sweet nostalgic pain to his eyes and he was fourteen again, and it was the year he’d lived in Chester, Pennsylvania—no, in Englewood, New Jersey—and spent all his free time in a plan for riding the rails to the West Coast.”

He even makes smell the source of conflict between two characters:

“He walked over and gave her a little hug; but his smile froze into an anxious grimace against her ear, because in bending close to her shoulder he had caught a faint whiff of  something rancid. 
In the shower, pensively soaping and scrubbing, Shep Campbell wondered what the hell it was that made her smell that way sometimes. It wasn’t that she didn’t take enough baths—he knew damn well she’d had one last night—and it didn’t have anything to do with the time of the month; he had checked that out long ago. It seemed to be a thing brought on by nerves, like a skin rash or a bad stomach; he guessed it was just that she tended to perspire more in times of tension. 
But he had to acknowledge, as he toweled himself in the steam, that it was more than just the smell of sweat. That alone, God knew, could be an exciting thing on a woman. And suddenly he was full of the time last summer when he’d held April Wheeler half drunk on the stifling, jam-packed dance floor of Vito’s Log Cabin, when her soaked dress was stuck to her back and her temple slid greasily under his cheek as they swayed to the buzz and clip of a snare drum and the moan of a saxophone. Oh, she was sweating, all right, and the smell of her was as strong and clean as lemons; it was the smell of her as much as the tall rhythmic feel of her that made his—that had made him want to—oh, Jesus. It had happened nearly a year ago, and the memory of it could still make his fingers tremble in the buttoning of his shirt.”

First edition of Revolutionary Road (1961)

And who can resist Roald Dahl’s description of a witch?
“What other things must I look for to recognize a witch?” I asked.
“Look for the nose-holes,” my grandmother said. “Witches have slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people. The rim of each nose-hole is pink and curvy, like the rim of a certain kind of sea-shell.”
“Why do they have such big nose-holes?” I asked.
“For smelling with,” my grandmother said. “A REAL WITCH has the most amazing power of smell. She can smell out a child who is standing on the other side of the street on a pitch-black night.”
“She couldn't smell me,” I said. “I've just had a bath.”
“Oh yes she could,” my grandmother said. “The cleaner you happen to be, the more smelly you are to a witch.”
“That can't be true,” I said.
“An absolutely clean child gives off the most ghastly stench to a witch,” my grandmother said. “The dirtier you are, the less you smell.”
“But that doesn't make sense, Grandmamma.”
“Oh yes it does,” my grandmother said. “It isn't the dirt that the witch is smelling.  It is you. The smell that drives a witch mad actually comes right out of your own skin. It comes oozing out of your skin in waves, and these waves, stink-waves the witches call them, go floating through the air and hit the witch right smack in her nostrils. They send her reeling.”
“Now wait a minute, Grandmamma...”
“Don't interrupt,” she said. “The point is this, when you haven't washed for a week and your skin is covered over with dirt, then quite obviously the stink-waves cannot come oozing out nearly so strongly.”
“I shall never have a bath again.” I said.
“Just don't have one too often,” my grandmother said. “Once a month is quite enough for a sensible child.”
It was at moments like these that I loved my grandmother more than ever.
(The Witches, pg. 23-24)

Finally, smell can be used to evoke an emotion in a character (and hopefully, the reader, too) like Robert Goolrick does in A Reliable Wife.

“He sat in a chair by the darkening window. ‘After she left, after he drove my mother away, after my sister died. I would sneak over to the old house, to the villa, and climb the staircase and go into her room. I would stand in her closet and bury my nose in her dresses, breathing in my mother. She smelled like another country, a country where there was always music and dancing. A country lit by candlelight.’”

Are there any scents that evoke memories in you? Can you share an effective description of smell in a work of fiction? Do you believe there is such a thing as an offensive odor, like in the smelly diaper story? Do you think the bus driver had a right to do what she did?


  1. When I was a librarian back I the early 90’s, there was a huge debate about homeless in public libraries. We couldn´t throw them out even if they stank up to high heaven. It stinks, but apparently, you have the right to reek, so nobody can kick you, your babies or pets out of a public building or vehicle.
    Aromas are very important in our lives as well as in fiction. Marcel Proust entire Remembrances of Things Past begins after the smell of a Madeleine sends the author in a trip down memory lane. The film “Scent of a Woman” has a blind colonel played by Al Pacino) “seeing” women via their perfumes. But my favorite is Oscar’s description of Roswitha in Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum “redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg.”
    My evocative aromas? Sopaipillas soaked in molasses syrup bring me back to rainy days in my childhood.

    1. I had forgotten all about "Scent of a Woman". Thanks for reminding me! I love that movie. You know, there are sopaipillas in NM too, but they're not stuffed and we pour honey on top. (I understand sopaipillas in Chile are stuffed?)

  2. It sounds like the bus driver was overreacting, but if the stink was making people gag or something, possibly it was justifiable. I've been around diapers that really ought to have been handled by a HazMat team. Still, making that poor woman and her sick baby walk -- it would have had to be pretty extreme. Did you know that in some countries, they've banned the durian fruit from public buses? I've had it, and it's pretty stinky, but less stinky than a diaper. (Tastes oddly good, though. Very strange fruit.)

    One of my favorite things from our own Mary Mary's book (the one set during the 20s) was her use of smell descriptions, particularly related to cooking. Every time she'd describe coffee or bacon, I felt like I was right there in that farmhouse. It was very evocative for me, and one of the things I remember best about the manuscript.

    I love the excerpts you provided here, Lorena: they are also great examples of smell description, which does seem to be an underrated type of description in fiction!

    One of my favorite smells, which probably doesn't translate to people who don't live in deserts, is the smell of rain in the desert. I also loved the smell of my grandmother's basement in Philadelphia, not realizing until I was much older that it was the smell of mildew. :) (We don't have mildew in the desert!)

    1. I agree with you that the bus driver may have been overreacting (unless someone passed out, ha!) though I know what you mean by those toxic diapers. Still, the alternative (kicking a pregnant woman with a sick child out of the bus) seems worse than dealing with the stench, especially because it's something totally out of the mom and baby's control. You know, Ecuadorian buses (and markets) are perhaps the stinkiest of all places in the world and I've survived!

      I don't know that I've ever smelled mildew (I'm not sure how that translates to Spanish).

      In agreement regarding Sister Mary's descriptions. :-)

  3. Love this topic! Thank you, Sister Steph, for your comments about my manuscript. I love smells in a novel. I know in my second novel I have my character smoking a lot (I have cut back on some of her smoking scenes just so the reader doesn't feel the MC will drop dead of lung cancer at any moment), but smoking is a strong smell from my childhood. My father was a smoker, and I always remember when he'd come down and pick us up for the weekends. The first thing he'd do was light a cigarette and to this day I love that first smell of a lit cigarette. It's much different than the overwhelming smell of the smoke. Plus, my father was always a big Pepsi drinker, so I always associate that with the cigarette smoke. I'm actually never offended when a character smokes in a book or film, especially if it's timely.

    On another note, The Witches makes me laugh. That passage you quoted scared the crap out of my daughter! She didn't finish the book, knowing now what to look for! I also love Revolutionary Road, and although I'd never thought about it before, I think some of the smell descriptions are really what made me enjoy the novel. I find Shep's description of his wife's odor very telling about his marriage and why he is always drawn to April.

    This post makes me think of one of the few short stories I've read and enjoyed -- "The Scent of Cinnamon." The name kind of says it all, but I think because that's the title, I've always remembered the story.

    The five senses are crucial to any novel. I learned that a long time ago. So, any struggling writer out there wondering why perhaps the audience isn't connecting to his/her work might want to look at the sensory details in their manuscript.

    1. You know, one of the funny things about that book is that you never find out why she stinks! After I finished the book I was like, yeah ok, so this happened to Frank and April, and that other guy was crazy, but what the heck was that "rancid" smell???? :D

      I love that book not because of the plot, but because of the characterization. That writer was a master at getting you inside the head of his characters.


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