Writing Memoir: Scene and Summary

“A crowd dances in the street in Guelph with their arms spread, looking upward” by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash

Time is the difference between scene and summary in any kind of writing.

Summaries compress time to deliver necessary information, often background information or transition information.

Scenes approximate real time. Action is described in a moment-by-moment fashion.

For me, summaries are easier to write than scenes. But summaries, as necessary as they can be, won’t carry a story. They don’t give the reader that sense of immersion that most readers crave. But they do help us skip over time that’s boring or isn’t relevant to the story, and they transport us from one scene to the next.

Scenes don’t come as naturally to me. Still, I force myself to slow down and write, as best I can, in a moment-by-moment way, but only when I’m at a particularly dramatic or emotional point in the story. It’s getting easier.

Here’s an example of an interaction between summary and scene from an essay about seeing my niece BeeBee for the first time since she’d been released from prison. The first paragraph is a summary giving background information about what I know (or think I know) about addiction. The next three paragraphs are my attempt at a moment-by-moment scene.

I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.

I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.

When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.

She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.

Chuck Wendig, who I’ve quoted before in this series about memoir writing, advises that “The scene should begin as late as possible.” By this, he means that the scene shouldn’t begin until something actually happens — something important.

Maybe I should cut those first two paragraphs.

Wendig’s craft book, Damn Fine Story is audience-centered; almost all of his advice has to to do with keeping the reader engaged. Much of his advice can be crystallized in these few words: “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” He does acknowledge that some scenes need time to build, and some need breathing room. For folks writing contemplative memoirs, his action-focus may not strike the right chord. But I agree that if we’re writing for an audience, we need to know them, respect them, and write in a way that appeals to them.

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