A good writer can conjure a landscape and its peoples to live inside you, and the best writers make you feel they’ve disclosed their soft underbellies. — Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
WHEN YOU READ A MEMOIR, what about that author’s story evokes emotion in you? What makes the events on the page sad or dramatic or exciting? What makes you want to turn the page? The answer, of course, is scene. In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach writes, “Scene is vital; it sits at the heart of all dramatic writing. And scene is nearly always what’s missing when a piece of creative nonfiction fails to come to life.”
What is scene? A scene is an action that occurs in a specific place at a specific time. A Twitter-esque version of a scene might read something like: “At midnight, Mr. Mustard murdered Mrs Peacock in the kitchen with the knife.”
At its best, a scene chronicles specific actions and events as perceived or experienced by the narrator (the story’s POV) using concrete, sensory details — what Mary Karr refers to as carnal (in the flesh) writing. A scene shows readers what is happening using language that helps readers smell, hear, and feel the scene’s action through the details included in the writing of it. A scene does not tell us about an event, it immerses us in it.
When you write a scene, you need to include all the senses: smell and taste, touch and sound, as well as sight. The more sensory details you include, the more you will help your readers viscerally experience what is happening in the story. As Mary Karr says, you need to “paint a physical reality” through your choice of words.
A scene does not tell us, “I was frightened.” It says, “My heart pounded against my rib cage as if trying to break out and run.” It says, “Sweat beaded on my forehead and gathered at the nape of my neck.” It says, “I tasted the cold metal of my fillings.”The most important piece of advice I can give you about writing scene is to slow down. Click To Tweet
If you’re thinking about or starting to write memoir you may be wondering: What do I do if I can’t remember all those details? How can I remember, so many years later, what the room smelled like, or what Uncle Billy was wearing, or what that new dress felt like against my skin? I have just a fragment of a memory. How do I create a scene from that?
- Start with an imperfect memory of a moment.
- Write down all the details you can remember. At this point don’t worry about writing a coherent narrative — just get the details down on the page. You can write in the form of lists, fragments, pieces of conversation, disconnected details such as colors, sounds, smells, and tastes. (For help remembering details, see my blog post, From Memories to Memoirs Part 3: Remembering Vividly).
- Then, write the scene, filling in the missing details using what you remember about the place and the people involved — things you know would have happened, gestures you remember Uncle Billy making, the tenor of his voice, the types of clothing he usually wore, the way he walked, the way your mother responded to him. If the scene takes place in a kitchen while a meal is being prepared, what might have been a typical meal, and how would it have smelled and tasted? What sounds might have been going on in the background?
- If there is dialogue, recreate it as faithfully as you remember it. Don’t worry about the exact words, but do attempt to capture the speaker’s voice — his pitch, his manner of speaking, his personal dialect. In recreating the character through physical detail, you bring him or her to life on the page and communicate the narrator’s (your memory’s) experience.
The most important piece of advice I can give you about writing scene is to slow down. Write the scene as if it were a movie being watched (and felt and heard) in slow motion. Even fast-paced scenes must be written with care, slowly, every detail exposed on the page, every punch landed in such as way that the reader feels the impact of hard knuckles landing on soft skin and the shock of the pain radiating up the arm, hears the grunt of air forced out, tastes blood on the lips, and sees the earth reeling.
Write a scene like you’ve never written one before. Start with a one-paragraph minimalist version of what happened (Mr. Mustard in the kitchen). Then, using the technique outlined above, turn that one paragraph into two pages by immersing yourself in the scene, in the moment and capturing every minute detail.
How did that go?
Share about your writing experience and, if you wish, a bit of your scene.
Want help starting and writing your memoir?
Enroll in From Memories to Memoirs: Leaving a Legacy of Stories. In this online class, you’ll use a variety of exercises and techniques to write compelling scenes and stories from your life. Memoir begins with memory, but it doesn’t end there. Join me and writers of all levels as we explore the nature of memoir and write stories worth reading.