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.

Writing Memoir: Arranging Plot

Photo of canoes in a mountain lake by Justin Roy on Unsplash

I like this image because the canoes in the water point toward a center, and the smaller group of canoes up on the dock also point toward a center. Then there are the rocky peaks in the background, all pointing up.

So, three groups of things that point in the some direction. Two are alike, one is different. I am such a sucker for order relieved by a variation that’s . . . orderly.

Most books have a structure providing order for the action. We often call these plots and subplots. Because I’m as powerless against metaphor as I am against order, in this photo, I see the canoes in the water as elements of the main plot. The canoes on the dock are elements of a related subplot. But those rocky peaks — they are the overarching “big idea” plot.

While I believe that memoirs have their own type of plots, they aren’t as explicit as the plots in fiction and films. Some writers will tell you plot isn’t such a big deal. In his book Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig demotes the importance of plot and promotes character arcs and character agency as the drivers of a story. But he does share tips about arranging the action of a story:

The arrangement matters. It matters that I know the ending but tell the story as if I don’t. It’s vital that I play the magic trick as if I don’t know where the rabbit is coming from — storytellers are, after all, practiced liars, and my job is to guide you through the journey, not fast-forward to the end. Part of the journey is about me asking questions and then withholding the answers for as long as you can stand it.

In my current memoir project, the main plot is about finding my identity as an adopted person, and the subplots of “who’s your daddy?” and “can you stick with your family?” Those are also (yes, Mr. Wendig), maybe more importantly, character arcs.

I know how the story ends, once I decide where it ends. But I have to keep that to myself if I want to keep a reader engaged. As Wendig points out, some stories begin with the ending, and the plot is about why — why did things end up that way? But I don’t think that works for my story.

So, if my story’s arrangement is “me asking questions and then withholding the answers,” what questions am I asking? And if that’s the kind of arrangement you are planning for your story, what questions are you asking?

This seems like a good exercise. The questions can be general or very specific.

General questions: Is a person’s core self formed by nature or nurture? Or both? If both, which parts come from nature and which from nurture? Why do families keep secrets? What is forgiveness?

More specific questions: Can a woman raised in the upper middle class find happiness in a family from the working class? Can a woman who rejected the responsibilities of motherhood be a good substitute parent? Can a woman who thinks she’s always right get along with people who make the same mistakes over and over again? Can these people tolerate her smarminess?

Really specific questions: How can my laugh be the same as the laugh of a woman I never met once I was out of the womb? How can one neglected child split her loyalty between two flawed mothers?

As usual, it’s the more specific questions that strike at the heart. And those more specific anythings — questions, scenes, arguments — -are always harder to write about than the general ones.

Ugh. Writing is such hard work.

I think the canoes are scenes that build the plot/subplot/character arc. They are pointing toward the themes. Those rocky peaks — I haven’t figured that out yet.