If you’ve done what I suggested in the first post ‘finding plot structure in your story‘, that is to write several but individual key incidents concentrating on making contain some conflict (which no doubt as you are writing about trauma, they will naturally contain), a series of a-ha moments, or questions, or revelations, perhaps with a deeper revelation and further conundrum at the end rather than an outright resolution, you may well be on your way to creating the plot of a memoir, or one of its subplots and you may not know which until you’ve written many of them. Plots themselves can be seen as being a group of stories, and the stories are a group of scenes, which all link together easily into broader story arcs.
Clearly it is of benefit therefore if you’ve been writing a lot of those key incidents down and delving deep into the detail of them rather than trying to tackle your life all at once. But even if you have written only one, I invite you to review it into how it breaks down into scenes… which will require an understanding of what exactly a scene is (don’t worry this is easier than you think).
Scenes can be described as story units which further either the plot or the characterisation, or ideally both! They move it forward, indeed they have to move the story forward in order to maintain reader interest. The reader likes to feel as if the story is going somewhere and if your scene feels flat, it’s probably because this feeling of motion is lacking. That can be okay, since you don’t want all of your scenes to be too intense. But for that reason, many scenes contain conflict of some kind, either internal or external. In memoir writing, there tends to be a lot of internal struggle which makes them tend towards the ‘literary’ style of book, rather than an action based thriller.
Scenes are mostly bound by time and/or place and are usually told in real time. They are themselves are made up of smaller units, called beats–actions and reactions (the main beats) interspersed with set-up and reflections (the minor beats, which occur less). Note that different authors have coined different terms for these ‘beats’ so you may not find them described that way in other writing manuals, these terms are adapted from those used by James Scott Bell (book reference at the end of this post).
These beats and their layout, are clearer when demonstrated with an actual scene, so without further ado…
The scene below, describes one key incident in an abusive relationship. Unless otherwise stated all quotes are from my own memoir. It’s alternates action, reaction and reflection.
‘How dare you accuse me of controlling you?’ Flecks of saliva flew out of Gus’s mouth and landed on my cheek. ‘You’re always complaining about how much clothes cost,and you’ve gone and spent money on a holiday with friends you never see. If you can even call them that.’ His mouth sneered. [Action]
‘But Linda’s in trouble,’ I protested. ‘You’d do the same for your friends.’ [Reaction]
‘You’ve deprioritised our relationship. That club I’ve always wanted to go to, you refused because you said you didn’t have enough money.’ [Action]
I blushed. [Reaction]
A high-class BDSM club plus requisite gear was expensive and nothing that I wanted to indulge in. Thank God the state of my finances had given me justification to refuse it. [Reflection]
‘But that’s only one night of fun,’ I countered. ‘This is a whole week in the Caribbean. It’s worth far more.’ [Further Reaction]
‘So, finally the truth,’ said Gus. ‘Do you know how it makes me feel to know you spend money on your so-called friends and not me? That you love them more than me? Actions speak louder than words. You don’t really love me.’ [Action]
He looked woebegone, and I felt daggers of guilt piercing my self-righteousness. [Reflection]
‘But I do love you,’ I said. ‘Just because I spend money to see my friends doesn’t mean I don’t.’[Reaction] Did it? [Reflection]
Gus pulled me to him, enveloping me in a hug, and I relaxed. He was suddenly the caring man. ‘I’m your family now,’ he said. ‘I know you’ve not had a proper family, it’s not your fault. But you can’t spend that amount of money without checking with me first. Our relationship comes first. They’re part of a past you’ve always said you wanted to forget. I’m your future.’ [Action]
‘Sorry,’ I mumbled into his chest. [Reaction] Maybe he was right. [Reflection] ‘I won’t do it again.’ [Reaction]
‘It’s okay, you can get a refund.’ [Action]
‘Except that I can’t,’ I said, [Reaction] knowing that the fight was about to start again. [Reflection] ‘It’s non-transferable and non-refundable.’ [Reaction]
After several hours of screaming, guilt, apologies and accusation, Gus’s dislike of wasting money had eventually been enough to make him accept that I had to go, if only to make use of the money I had already spent. So I agreed, in a moment of madness, to show him how committed I was, never realising that by the day my train departed, I would be longing to escape. [Transition]
Point of View
In any given conversation it is very obvious that there will be action and reaction. One person says something, the other responds. Writing memoir means that you are writing from the first person point of view, yours. If it’s purely an account of I say-(s)he says, the scene will be very dull. You need to document internal deliberation, reflection and interpretation of what is going on around you.
But be careful that you don’t make outright assumptions about others’ motivations and behaviours. You cannot know what is in their mind, you can only know how you interpret their words and behaviour. If you move into describing the internal reflections of someone else, your memoir will be less believable. Do it too much and you will have moved into the realm of fiction using an omniscient narrator. You can have an ominscient narrator voice in some passages, but these must stay generic and in a memoir is usually only used to describe surroundings, usually for the set-up. For example,
Sam Lord was an infamous buccaneer who once lived on the east side of the island. He had no ship. No cutlass. No eye patch. Instead, he built a castle where he lay in wait for unsuspecting ships to come into harbour at what they thought was a nobleman’s palace in the busy capital of the island, Bridgetown. Not believing that anyone of less thanaristocratic blood would be living in a castle, they were trustingly duped and consequently plundered, victim of their own prejudices.
Now Sam Lord’s castle was a hotel. It was emboldened with white turrets and surrounded by tiny wooden chalets, looking like a village from the middle ages dominated by hierarchy, power and squalid inequity.
In this instance, the ominscient narrator is used as set-up and description. The ominiscient narrator can also be used to indicate a supposed objective truth.
If anything was guaranteed to spoil a holiday, it would be untimely death.
At the end of the sample scene, you will notice that there is a passage marked ‘transition’. Having shown all I wanted to in that scene, i.e. the power dynamics at play, it was unecessary to document the entire argument which would have been, I felt, very tedious. It was time for the scene to be over, and what I needed then, was to transition into the next scene. Many scenes transition by shortening the time passing between them, so instead of listing a series of events, you might choose to say ‘The next time we met it was in in a downtown coffee shop, one of those which doubled as a hipster start-up office.’
In the chapter containing the argument above, I jump between the past and the present, so I had to link the last line,
‘…never realising that by the day my train departed, I would be longing to escape.’
With what followed next,
‘As the train pulled into Waterloo, it was past noon and grey clouds rolled in the sky.’
Indicating that the argument was a flashback that I was remembering the entire thing for the duration of my train journey.
Look at your own writing now and identify a short scene. Go through it line by line.
- Note your beats, and whether they are action, reaction and reflection.
- If you have very little of some of them, is this a conscious choice? Why? What does it add or take away?
- Close your eyes and think about whether anything can make the scene more vivid. Was your hand unconsciously closing and opening? Could you smell anything? What colours were around you? Can you hear anything? Ideally the reader should be standing alongside you. Yet also use this ‘deepening’ of the scene in moderation. In the scene above, the focus is on the argument which is a quick fight. Using too much deepening would slow it down.
In sone places within the memoir I have entire scenes that are reflection. Whether or not I have done it right in my book, there is a legitimate place for them. When you look at your scenes all together, they cannot be constantly agitated, or at the same level of intensity. Your memoir is like a rollercoaster and the reader must be allowed to breathe and rest before the action starts again.
Further References for Understanding Scenes