Writing Scene By Scene

In addition to all of the other methods creative nonfiction writers use to achieve a high level of realism, they tend also to walk readers through a story scene by scene. In traditional journalism, the basic building block was the fact. Reporters rushed around collecting facts from dusty records at City Hall, interviewing experts, and talking with the people involved. Facts piled on facts, interview quotes stacked on interview quotes. All of this took place in the name of accuracy, completeness, and objectivity—certainly not in the name of readability or memorability. Creative nonfiction writers, by contrast, remain as respectful of facts. They usually have the time to dig up far more facts about a story than do deadline-haunted reporters, but they don't think of them as the basic building blocks for their stories; they "think scenes" instead.

The scene is the dramatic element in fiction and creative nonfic-tion. The scene is the fundamental block around which the writer forms the story. A story usually has a number of scenes, and the method best used in creative nonfiction is to develop the story scene by scene. A scene reproduces the movement of life; life is motion, action.

In creative nonfiction you almost always have the choice of writing the summary (narrative) form, the dramatic (scenic) form, or some combination of the two. Because the dramatic method of writing provides the reader with a closer imitation of life than summary ever could, creative nonfiction writers frequently choose to write scenically. The writer wants vivid images to transfer into the mind of the reader; after all, the strength of scenic writing lies in its ability to evoke sensual images. A scene is not some anonymous narrator's report about what happened some time in the past; instead, it gives the feeling that the action is unfolding before the reader. A scene makes the past present. The reader sees the characters in action, sees their gestures, hears their voices in conversation. Their participation (involvement) in the story is greater. The reader can't take part in a summary narrative; as readers of narrative, we're just students in a room listening to a lecture. As soon as we see the scene, we feel it, smell it, hear it, and believe, for the moment, that we're in it.

The main point behind writing scene by scene is that since the brain is "involved" in the scenes, it more readily accepts the narrative information. As in fiction, in creative nonfiction you can use scenes to do certain narrative work. A lot of characterization, for example, can be smuggled into a scene through captured conversation.

By little bits of narrative prose stealthily slipped in around conversation, you can reveal, for example, some of the characters' physical characteristics—hairstyles, beards, kinds of eyes. If the bits remain short and scattered, the reader doesn't hear the narrator's voice intruding and remains involved in the scene. Where narrative summary must be used, try to have a main character, or some character, provide the summary statement through a quote, direct or indirect. The reader more readily accepts the words of a character than those of the narrator. Even an indirect quote can retain the voice of the character, and give the reader a continued sense of participation in the scene—or at least give the reader the feeling of observing the scene firsthand, instead of through the eyes of the narrator.

As you plan a story, consider the events, incidents, or happenings with the most dramatic potential. Which scenes have the best visual, imagistic potential? These become your inventory of possible scenes—all else must be handled through narrative summary.

As in fiction, certain events typically have great dramatic potential. Watch for:

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However, don't overlook the potential of small, seemingly insignificant incidents that you can work up into a scene to use for your narrative purposes. There is a place for content and a place for method. The content of a scene may be simple (not very dramatic), but the scenic method makes it come alive for us. The following passage from Russell Baker's memoir, Growing Up, is an "insignificant" scene that serves as a wonderful example of the scenic method. Note that this scene has none of the typical captured conversation, but the concrete details make it form tactile, visual, and auditory images in our brains.

Before this passage, Russell Baker has pointed out that when he was a child, the outermost edge of his universe was Brunswick, Virginia, "as distant and romantic a place as I ever expected to see." When his father took him on a trip to Brunswick to see three of Russell's uncles, he discovered that the city had electric lightbulbs, flashbacks disasters failures births hardships life reversals deaths successes beginnings telephones, radios. "Rich people lived there. Masons, for heaven's sake. Not just Red Men and Odd Fellows and Moose such as we had around Morrisonville, but Masons. And not just Masons, but Baptists, too____" When they visited his Uncle Tom, the blacksmith, young

Russell fell in love with a miracle in a small room.

At the top of the stairs lay the miracle of plumbing. Shutting the door to be absolutely alone with it, I ran my fingers along the smooth enamel of the bathtub and glistening faucet handles of the sink. The white majesty of the toilet bowl, through which gallons of water could be sent rushing by the slightest touch of a silvery lever, filled me with envy. A roll of delicate paper was placed beside it. Here was luxury almost too rich to be borne by anyone whose idea of fancy toiletry was Uncle Irvey's two-hole privy and a Montgomery Ward catalog.

After gazing upon it as long as I dared without risking interruption by a search party, I pushed the lever and savored the supreme moment when thundering waves emptied into the bowl and vanished with a mighty gurgle. It was the perfect conclusion to a trip to Brunswick.

Imagine that written as narrative summary by someone other than Russell Baker, someone who didn't appreciate the dramatic potential of a boy seeing his first indoor bathroom: He was impressed to discover that unlike Uncle Irvey's, Uncle Tom's bathroom had running water. He enjoyed listening to the water rushing down into the toilet bowl. The delicate paper next to the bowl was a far cry from the Montgomery Ward catalog in the two-hole privy he was used to at home. The words accomplish essentially the same narrative work but miss the potential to involve us in the experience and see it through the boy's eyes—no drama. Since no conversation went on in either passage, the difference lies in the concreteness of the details and the sensory content of Baker's. His writing is vivid; it has the stuff of life in it. Mine was merely reporting the facts; his was drawing a scene, reporting the drama inherent in a minor incident.

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