Jennifer Lauck, Associate Fellow at the Attic Institute
As a writer of memoir, your primary job is to re-create your lived experience on the page.
The most effective way to do this? With a scene. From the Tell it Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, “scene is the building block of creative non-fiction.” She also goes on to write, “Scene is based on action unreeling before us, as it would in a film and it will draw on the same techniques as fiction—dialogue, description, point of view, specificity, concrete detail. Scene also encompasses the lyricism and imagery of great poetry.”
Now let’s take a look at the different kinds of scene available.
Representative scene: This is scene that doesn’t pretend to happen at one specific time and place but “represents” a “typical” moment. For example, you want to write about the morning routine in your home as a child. You can write about the “typical morning,” in general terms in order to capture the essence of the family routine.
IE: Mornings in our house were always the same, I was up early—before my brothers and sisters and even my mom. In the quiet of the hazy, pre-day light, I’d pad down the stairs with socks on my feet and take extra care to avoid the fifth step which was known for it’s high pitched squeak. Once on the main floor, it felt like the house was mine—a silent kingdom where I could rule over stove, refrigerator, sink and table. I could sit where I wanted and not have to wrestle by brother for the cereal box and beg the milk from my sister. Here, in the freshness of each day, I learned what it might be like when I lived on my own and away from the craziness that began by eight a.m.
As you can see here, in representative scene, you have the freedom to summarize but are still called to load your sentences with details to convey the mood, setting and voice.
Specific scene: This is your extended scene about a moment in time—one moment—when something happens that moves your story forward in a significant way. Action unfolds before the reader and perhaps even for the narrator. This scene is easily identified by “cue” words like: one day, that day, on Tuesday, that morning, that evening and so on. It’s the “singular” that makes it clear to the reader that it’s time to settle down and read about that one time that one thing happened.
IE: It’s a Monday morning, June, 1973. School is not yet out and another day is ahead. Math, science, English. I cannot wait to finish seventh grade. I roll out of bed and the house ticks with that silence that is the early morning. The radiators have yet to wake up and outside there is the lightest call of the early birds.
I poke my head out my bedroom door, the one with the “do not disturb” which hangs from the knob and look right, left and then right again. Total silence except for the caw, wheeze sound of Mike who always snores. It’s the retainers in his mouth. He sounds like a cave man in there. The door to my mother’s room is closed and there is no light from under the door. I have about an hour before everyone will wake up and the rush to get to school will begin.
Back in my own room, I tug on my pink and white stripped socks, the ones with extra fluff so I won’t make one sound as I sneak down the stairs.
Both forms of scene are needed in your writing and both require you to spend time with vivid images that will stay in the readers mind.
Writers have a tendency not to use scene in their writing. I think it has something to do with the issue of understanding and of craftsmanship. Writers are afraid they might not get it right or that they don’t have the talent to get it right so they fall in clever forms of expository writing and load the pages with one “incident” after another. Volumes and volumes of experiences do not convey essence. This approach pretty much yields a great deal of “stream of consciousness” writing. Or journal writing, which is simply not that interesting for the reader.
The best way to get a sense of scene, both the representative type and the specific type, is to look for these forms in the books you read. Take a sticky note and put it there, next to each format you find and in this way you will begin to “understand” what the writer is doing and how they are doing it.