In my memoir writing workshops, participants often say they struggle with writing in a way that evokes emotion. They worry their writing is flat and uninteresting. One way you can make your writing more compelling is to create vivid scenes full of sensory details. These scenes fuel a reader’s imagination and draw them into the story. The reader feels as if they are in a scene, smelling, seeing and hearing what you are describing.
We store our memories as sensory memories, so if you are recreating a scene from your past, meditate on it—immerse yourself in the scene you are remembering and see if you can recall the sounds, smells, sights, textures and tastes. It takes a while to learn to take yourself back to sensory memories but one way is to assemble memory joggers such as perfumes, foods, photographs, movies, books, diaries, journals and mementos and meditate on them.
Creating scenes in a memoir
Your job as a writer is to enable your reader to see, smell, taste and respond to the scene in their own way. Show your reader what a person is like or what is happening. Help the reader interpret the scene for themselves based on the precise details you provide rather than you interpreting it for them. So for example, use the words, ‘sparkling aqua water’ at a beach rather than saying the water is lovely because lovely is your interpretation of the scene.
Write characteristics that stand out and are distinctive to a person you are writing about. These include how they look, how they feel when you hug them, what they wear if it is distinctive to them, their aroma and behaviours. Use concrete words that convey sensory details that appeal to the creative right side of the brain rather than abstract words that appeal more to the analytical left side of the brain.
If the first thing your mother did when she arrived home from work when you were a child was to change into striped pink pyjamas, include that detail. If your mother always drank tea from a white bone china cup, mention it. If your mother always wore Chanel No. 5 perfume, say so.
Creating dialogue in a memoir
When writing dialogue, include the characteristic vocabulary and style of speaking of the people you are writing about. If you can’t remember the exact words they said, make them up, so the dialogue reflects the gist of the conversation.
If your sister injected ‘like’ into every sentence when she was a teenager, include ‘like’ in her dialogue from that time. Also include a person’s actions, gestures and behaviours while they are speaking as this helps the reader to imagine the scene and the person’s personality with greater clarity.
Recreating scenes in a memoir
A vital aspect of setting scenes is to recreate the setting—where things happened, time of day, weather, clothes, furniture, light and details specific to the scene. Don’t give your interpretation of the scene by saying the lounge room was beautiful. Instead, describe the furniture, curtains, wall colour and carpet in detail, enabling your reader to interpret the scene for themselves.
Of course, you need a mixture of showing and telling. If your memoir is all showing it will be too intense and get bogged down in detail. So balance out the showing and telling. Telling gives us space and context—it is descriptive and gives your reader a breather. Showing slows down the pace in the moment, telling speeds it up. Showing describes the minutiae of lived experience, telling gives us an overview.
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