Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Scene Structure

A scene is like a single member of a family – it is loved for its own individuality – but its greatest power is its contribution to the larger group. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

ID-100201658If you read fiction, you’re already aware of scene structure (even if only at a subconscious level), because that’s how stories are put together. A short story might be comprised of only one scene, a novel of one or more scenes per chapter. The larger story arc of a novel or memoir is made up of dozens of smaller beginning-middle-end story arcs strung together in scenes. If you want your memoir to read more like a favorite novel and less like a dry textbook, an understanding of the fictional elements of a scene is essential.

In “How to Write Vivid Scenes,” Chris Eboch describes a scene and its elements:

[A] scene is a single incident or event. However, a summary of the event is not a scene. Scenes are written out in detail, shown, not told, so we see, hear, and feel the action. They often have dialog, thoughts, feelings, and sensory description, as well as action. A scene ends when that sequence of events is over.

But

It’s not enough for a scene to be emotional or funny or colorful or scary. It must have a reason to be in your novel…. I have read scenes that seemed more like window dressing than an integral part of the story. ~ Diane O’Connell, “The Five Biggest Mistakes in Writing Scenes

Basically, a scene presents a character or characters doing something within a particular setting, and uses dialogue, action, and narrative to do such things as: advance the plot, reveal personalities and motives, impart necessary information, or tie into the theme in some way. Characters are a given. Action and purpose are essential.

As an example, two sisters discussing which pair of socks go best with their father’s Army uniform does not comprise a scene. Place the sisters (and their conversation) beside a stainless steel table in a funeral home and the promise of a story begins to surface. But it doesn’t become a scene unless some kind of action takes place, whether physical or emotional – the sisters take on the task of dressing their dead father, a last chance to show their love for a man who had never allowed them entrance into his life.

In fiction, a writer builds his characters and scenes. He creates his world and decides what story to tell. But a memoirist must work with what has already played out. Either way, the writers job is to find the meaning in these stories, discover the history and the why of things – the truth as he sees it and/or the truth as it really is – and then decide how it should unfold. My essay Dressing the Dead went through many revisions before I found the truth in my own story and how this unconventional farewell fit into the larger picture of the man my sister and I never really knew.

When writing a scene, first you must concentrate only on the elements that make that scene work on its own as an isolated mini-story. But eventually you must judge each individual scene’s effectiveness according to how much it contributes to the work as a whole. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

Whether you’re a plotter and plan your story scene by scene ahead of time or write your stories as they come to you, it will be important at some point to evaluate your writing to make sure the scenes are complete and relevant.

Jami Gold makes this evaluation process easier with her checklist Elements of a Good Scene available as a free download from the Worksheets for Writers page of her website. The checklist is divided into three sections: Essential Elements (scenes should reveal at least one of these), Important Elements (scenes should reveal at least two of these), and Bonus Elements.

Elements of a Good SceneContinue down the Worksheet page to download an Excel spreadsheet that covers the same scene elements but in a format to keep track of multiple scenes. In fact, check out all of her story planning worksheets, including Save the Cat and Story Engineering beat sheets and a Scrivener template.

How do you keep track of your scenes and how they fit into the larger story?

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Image “Hands With Cubes A B C” courtesy of luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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7 thoughts on “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Scene Structure

  1. I’m having trouble describing experiences during WWII without dialogue. Those experiences happened when I was six years old. To me, each experience is a one-off and needs to be embellished by dialogue.

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    • Memoirs are often called creative nonfiction. In order to make them more readable — and because our memory is fallible — memoirists often have to be creative in telling their personal stories. I don’t see this as being dishonest if you disclose the liberties you’ve taken, such as in a disclaimer. Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway handled the issues of memory and retelling of dialogue in their disclaimer for the memoir Unsinkable in this way: “The conversations in the book all come from the author’s recollections, though they are not written to represent word-for-word transcripts. Rather, the author has retold them in a way that evokes the feeling and meaning what was said and in all instances, the essence of the dialogue is accurate.” (You can read my post about disclaimers at https://thisnewmountain.com/2013/05/31/writing-the-memoir-disclaimers/) Good luck!

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  2. Pingback: Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques | Cate Macabe

  3. Thanks for the shout out, Cate! I’m happy this worksheet is helpful for memoirs too. I love your example of the funeral home scene because that really gets across how without the context of “why” they’re focusing on this task, we’re missing an Essential Element tying the scene into the overall story. Fantastic illustration of how to apply this to memoir-writing! :)

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