I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
It’s been thirty years since I first baked cookies with my mother. Yet it only takes one whiff of melting chocolate to transport me back in time.
I was four, not quite tall enough to see over the counter, so I sat next to the sink, my legs dangling over the side. I remember my mom gently gripping my wrist as she showed me how to measure a teaspoon of vanilla. The streak of flour on her forehead where she kept pushing her hair out of her eyes. The cloud that rose from the bowl as I dumped in the dry ingredients. Later, we played checkers at the table, Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday” on the oldies station, as the aroma of molten chocolate filled the house.
Science has long proven the link between memory and the senses. The receptors in our brains responsible for the storage of memory are very close to the areas we use to process what we hear, smell, see, touch and taste. Those senses make lasting imprints on our brains, so we forever associate certain scents, sounds or images with particular events and emotions.
As writers, especially those of us who aim to capture our life experiences, we can use sensory details to bring those memories to life – not just in our minds, but for our readers.
Often, memoirists focus too much on what happened – the sequence of events; times and dates and places; the people who were present. But without the addition of sensory details, writing can seem vague or impersonal, even clinical. What if I simply told you that I was four the first time I baked cookies with my mother, and left it at that? As a reader, you’d have a fact; an event that transpired. But you wouldn’t have a story.
Sensory details are key to helping your reader see the world through your eyes – and that’s the goal of any piece of creative writing, from memoir to fiction. Remember that moment in the Wizard of Oz when the movie switches from black and white to full, brilliant color? That’s what sensory details do for your writing – they allow readers to experience your story in color.
Consider this: Everyone experiences Thanksgiving. But nobody experiences it exactly the way you do. Thanksgiving, to you, may be a beloved family holiday, rich with laughter and good food and traditions. Or it could be a dreaded event, one you suffer through every year. Use sensory details to help the reader better visualize the scene and convey the emotional context. Rather than simply telling us that it was a dreaded holiday, you can show us through sensory details by writing about the sickly-sweet scent of your mother-in-law’s perfume as she criticized every dish you made, the relentless blast of the Auburn football game on TV, the way your jaw ached from clenching your teeth. That’s going to help put that reader in your shoes, in that scene – inside your memory.
One final thought: when using sensory details in writing, remember to include all five senses, not just sight or sound. Many writers, consciously or not, focus on how something looks because that’s our primary receptor of information. But touch, smell, taste and sound are equally important. What would the beach be without the crash of waves, the taste of salt on your lips, the silky white sand between your toes? We experience the world with all our senses; your reader should, too.
So how do we capture those sensory details in our writing? Here’s a great exercise: Start by writing down what you remember about a memory. After a minute, add in what you saw – colors, setting, descriptions, the people present, and so on. Write for another minute, focusing on that one sense. Then add in what you smelled – what aromas or odors you remember. After another minute, focus on what you heard, and so forth, until you’ve worked your way through all five senses. You’ll be amazed at how much more vivid your scene is, and perhaps also how much more you remember about it. You may even find yourself uncovering details that you had forgotten.
That’s the beauty of sensory details. They help create a true, rich world for the reader – and bring our memories to life on the page.