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.


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?

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


Free Resources for Writers: Writing and Editing

Word Cloud Free Resources2Writers have countless ways to spend their money — whether on a double espresso to push through a final draft or a conference that has called to us for years. We all have life expenses that we must spend our money on now, as well as more wishful things that require time and sacrifice to save up for.

Here are a few free and useful resources to help you save money while still being able to organize, edit, and shape your writing world and its characters.

 Organizing Tool

yWriter5 is free novel-writing Spacejock software (designed for Windows PCs) that helps a writer organize and keep track of scenes and chapters, characters, settings and plot elements. “It will not write your novel for you, suggest plot ideas, or perform creative tasks of any kind. It does help you keep track of your work, leaving your mind free to create.” The program was designed by Simon Haynes, programmer and author, after he struggled to keep track of the elements in his own first novel. You can type directly into yWriter5 or use your own word processor and then use yWriter5 to keep track of scenes, etc. Features include: tracking your progress; automatic backups at user-specified intervals; adding multiple/viewpoint characters, goals, conflict and outcome fields for each scene; a storyboard view for a visual layout of your work; re-ordering of scenes, drag and drop elements. “Contains no adverts, unwanted web toolbars, desktop search programs or other cruft.” K.M. Weiland has a yWriter video tutorial on her website here.

Editing Tools

  • ProWritingAid is a free online writing editor. Paste in a chapter and it produces 19 free reports to improve your writing – checks grammar and spelling; finds overused/repeated words and phrases, and clichés; checks for consistency in spelling, hyphenation and capitalization; analyses your manuscript for alliteration, vague/abstract/complex words, passive voice and adverbs, sentence length, and dialogue tags. One of the things I enjoy most about ProWritingAid is the feature that creates a word cloud – a visual representation of the most often used words in your text. For an example, see the word cloud for this article at the top of the post.
  • Listening to your work read aloud is a good way to catch mistakes and missing words, and also hear how it all flows. NaturalReader is free text-to-speech software with natural sounding voices. This software can read any text from Microsoft Word files, webpages, and PDF files (and can also convert text into audio files such as MP3 or WAV).

Writing Tools: Thesauruses

There are plenty of online thesauruses that provide alternate word choices, but nothing as extensive as what I found on the Writers Helping Writers website with its collection of free resources.

If you “need help describing your character’s pain, exhaustion, illness, dehydration, hunger, stress, attraction and more” download Emotion Amplifiers (a companion to The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi). This is a free 33-page pdf that “supplies the body language, thoughts and internal sensations that accompany conditions that ‘amplify’ a character’s mental state, leading to a stronger emotional reaction.” Go to the Writing Tools page (with lots of other free stuff) or click here for a direct link to the Emotion Amplifiers download.

You’ll find eight more Thesaurus Collections at the Writers Helping Writers website to help in describing every sort of thing writers might include in their fiction or nonfiction writing:

  • Physical Attributes Thesaurus Collection – choose specific physical features to create compelling and memorable characters
  • Weather & Earthly Phenomena Thesaurus Collection – for emotion-targeted sensory description
  • Color, Textures and Shapes Thesaurus Collection – add descriptive layers; create simile or metaphor for different shapes, colors and textures
  • Character Traits Thesaurus Collection (Samples) – cardinal personality profiles (expanded in The Positive Thesaurus & The Negative Thesaurus books)
  • Setting Thesaurus Entry Collection – smells, sights, tastes, sounds and textures for over 100 different fictional settings
  • Symbolism Thesaurus Entry Collection – use iconic symbolism for different literary themes (the passage of time, coming of age, etc.)
  • The Talents and Skills Thesaurus Collection – skills or talents make characters authentic, unique and interesting.
  • Emotion Thesaurus Entry Collection (Samples) – avoid overused expressions (like frowns and shrugs); craft unique body language, etc. (expanded in the comprehensive Emotion Thesaurus resource)

What are your favorite free writing and editing resources?