This blog was featured on 04/28/2017
Unpacking the Essay: Writing Scenes
Written by
Janine Kovac
April 2017

When I sit down to write an essay or when I’m editing one for another writer, I’m always looking at how scenes come into play. A strong sense of place, time, and sensory details (sights, smells, sounds, tastes) are quick and powerful strategies for grounding a reader in your story and putting her in your shoes.

Writing scenes for my essays is never something that comes easily to me. I tend to think in rambling thoughts, the way one might talk to a therapist. Slowing down to paint a picture is always a struggle.

Part of this is because when I start an essay, it takes three or four revisions to figure out what it is that I really want to say. If I can’t think of a scene, sometimes I’ll just pick up an image in motion and describe it to see where it will lead. My writing tends to circle like a hawk searching for food, starting broad and surveying the terrain before zeroing on the meat. (See what I did there?)

Sometimes writing scenes helps me uncover the buried truth, but more often than not, the salient details from my memories are just decoys. For example, I really want to write this story of the night before I left for San Francisco Ballet School. I was thirteen years old and preparing to leave for a six-week summer intensive. My mother and I laid all the contents of my suitcase on the couch and she counseled me on proper away-from-home behavior. I remember so clearly the big red towel that she’d bought specifically for the trip. But the red towel doesn’t tell the reader anything about that night or my relationship with my mother. Or why I’m drawn to write about this scene in the first place.

Part of the problem is that there’s no tension inherent in packing a suitcase and without tension, a scene is just an anecdote. By tension, I don’t mean conflict (although scenes can certainly have conflict); I’m talking about laws of physics. For every action there needs to be an equal and opposite reaction.

I tell my ballet students this. It is physically impossible to stand (let alone jump, turn or balance) unless you can find the points of your body that reach in opposition to each other. Holding the left arm can help you lift your right leg in the air.

So if I really want to write about packing this suitcase, I’m going to have to find the opposing forces in the story. Is it a mother nervous about her daughter leaving home and the daughter who can’t wait to leave? And if so, what happens then? Is there an image (the red towel, perhaps? Or maybe a pair of new pointe shoes?) that becomes a trigger for a flash-forward and new opposing forces?

An interesting thought to follow—and questions that will only be answered if I sit down and actually *write* the scene.

How do you write scenes for your creative nonfiction? Do they come easily to you? Do they lead to bigger truths? What’s your process?

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  • Jennifer Lang

    Thank you. I love this line: For every action there needs to be an equal and opposite reaction. It says it all...

  • oh, great! Thank you, Kristin!

  • What a great post, Janine! Thank you so much for sharing! I'm going to post it in our newsletter, too!