One of the most important things I try to ingrain in my students is the fact that scenes are your building blocks. Without scenes, you don’t have a memoir.
But what is a scene exactly? Basically, all scenes need to contain the following three elements:
Scenes need to contain an event
Let’s start with number one, which is the most important advice I can give you when it comes to creating a scene: All scenes need to contain an event. In other words, something has to happen. If nothing happens, why are you writing a scene in the first place?
Scenes create plot and plot is created by events. I often think of “events” and “scenes” as being synonymous and sometimes even uses the words interchangeably when talking about memoir writing. Whenever something happens in your book, you need to give us a scene. And any time you give us a scene, something better happen.
Scenes need a sense of time and place
It doesn’t matter whether your scene takes place in April of last year or 1952. It doesn’t matter whether it occurs in a park, a bathroom, or a Turkish prison. But all scenes need a sense of time and place. Why? Because as I explained earlier, all scenes need an event. And an event can’t occur unless you are talking about a particular place and point in time.
Writing something like “Every summer in high school” is not giving us a specific time and thus is not setting up a scene. However, writing, “One Saturday night when I was in high school” is anchoring your scene in time and is setting the groundwork for an event to occur.
We don’t need for you to elaborate on time or place. Your scene just needs time and place as an anchor for the event that you’re about to describe.
Scenes need to put us inside the narrator’s head
Whenever I’m reading a great book or watching a great movie, there are moments when I lose myself so completely in the plot that I actually feel like I am the protagonist. That’s what you want your memoir to do for a reader: make them forget they are reading a book.
The way to help a readers truly experience the events that you lived through is to put us inside your narrator’s head — a process I like to call “channeling your internal monologue.” Instead of just describing what you saw, heard, or smelled, try and describe the thoughts that went through your head at the time. Good prose always sounds like a recounting of a writer’s internal monologue, whether it’s fiction or memoir.
If you’d like more information, check out the video below. Happy writing!