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Make Your Scenes Earn Their Way
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2017
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2017

Good novel and memoir writing hinges on scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of good story, and practiced storytellers know that a book is a series of scenes with strong transitions connecting one to the next. My colleague Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, equates the scenes of a book to the pearls on a necklace. Each pearl is a wonder all its own, and the strand itself is the through-thread of the storyline and narration, with spaces in between that symbolize transition. 

A stumbling point for all beginning writers, and some experienced ones too, is the inclusion of scenes that don’t deserve the attention they’re given. Consider the idea that a scene ought to be privileged to be included in your book. It has to earn its way in. Ask yourself these questions the next time you’re reading a novel or a memoir, particularly one you find riveting:

  • Why are you turning the page?
  • What is the writer doing to make you stay interested?
  • Why did she write her scene that way?
  • Is there something specific the author is achieving with a given scene?

Pause and think about these questions. Being a student of others’ writing is the best way to create that urgency or sense of curiosity about what happens next in your own writing.

Consider the following points from my co-authored book (with Myers), Breaking Ground on Your Memoir, when you write your scenes:

  • Place and setting—landscape; time of year; weather; towns vs. cities; etc.
  • Characters—characters in action and dialogue.              
  • Situation—what is the situation or problem?
  • Action—how do different people in your scene react, move, respond?
  • Dialogue—how do people talk (including body language)?
  • Conflict—how do people express their differences?
  • Context, time in history—when does the story occur in time?
  • Sensual details—how does the world feel, smell, taste, sound?

These are considerations for novelists and memoirists alike, and what’s notable is that there’s a lot to keep in mind as you write—which is why writing is an art, something to be refined and practiced. I come across a lot of writers who believe that writing is a talent, but in my experience nothing could be further from the truth. The best writers are obsessed with their craft. They study under multiple teachers and work to truly understand and harness the power of storytelling, which requires the mastery of creating scenes.

Next time you sit down to write, start a new scene with intention. Consider the scene’s purpose. In fiction the scene might simply be about driving forward the plot. In memoir the scene might be a way to further articulate your themes, to drive home ideas and takeaways that satisfy the reader. When you start to hold your scenes to a high standard, you will never again fall into laziness as a writer—allowing in scenes that don’t measure up. The best books don’t have superfluous scenes. Each one has a reason for being. This is as it should be. Make ’em work for it, and remember that if you’re bored, your reader will be too. 


* This post was originally published in September 2015.

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  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Well done. This gives me confidence to keep editing out the slow moments and slow down the big ones.

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers and

    Author of Talent (being released by Eternal Press on November 1)

  • susan imhoff bird

    oh if only it were easy! your suggestion to pay attention while you read other authors' works is excellent advice: I often reread parts of Stegner's Angle of Repose to learn from a master.  

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thank you both for your great comments. This issue of constantly reminding yourself speaks to the attentiveness we all need to cultivate in our writing practices. I keep signs above my writing space. Helpful. :)

  • Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw

    Great advice, Brooke! And very timely. I am in the third draft of my memoir and there are a couple of transition scenes that I haven't been that thrilled with but unsure what to do. Reading your essay here, it's like a lamp switched on and now I see clearly what exactly it is that has caused me this disquiet.

    I constantly remind myself that whIle I know what is next, the reader needs a reason to turn the page... to move forward to that next chapter.

    You know... writing noir is much easier than memoir. But, to borrow a few words from Lene Fogelberg, in her "behind the scenes" look at her memoir...

    "Sometimes the stories you need to tell own you so profoundly that you can do little else but watch them unfold on paper."

    Writing noir is fun but it is my memoir that gets me up each morning.

  • Tamara Duricka Johnson

    YES! Excellent points Brooke. 

    I was volunteering with WriteGirl (a great group for teenage girls who love to write) and the subject was memoir. I overheard one girl tell another, "I wasn't going to come today since I'm not really into memoir."
    When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned what I'd heard and emphasized that what's great about memoir is that it has elements from nearly every other type of genre: script writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetic turn of phrase, and even the rhythm of songwriting, not to mention my professional background, journalism.

    I've learned a lot about memoir writing through reading scripts. Another way: eavesdropping.
    Thanks for great ideas - as always!