Debra Gwartney: A Few Thoughts on Writing Scenes (for memoir writers)

Debra Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is the
author of Live Through This, a memoir published in 2009 and a finalist for
the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers
Award, and the Oregon Book Award. She’s also the co-editor, along with her
husband Barry Lopez, of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. In the coming week,
Alaska writers will have several opportunities to
study with Debra; scroll down for details.  

Back when I was enrolled in a MFA program and writing early
drafts of pieces about my daughters that would eventually lead to my memoir, Live Through This, my teachers often suggested
I needed to write more scenes. Furthermore, they advised me to deepen and
complicate the scenes I’d begun. I’d think, what
are they
talking about? I have
written complicated scenes!
The advice perplexed me. It took me a while to realize
that in those MFA days, I hadn’t yet grasped the intricate mechanics of the
fully rendered scene.
Now I’m a teacher, and students I work with often seem
bewildered when I say, “more scenes needed,” or “more complex scenes needed.” What are you talking about? a student will
tell me. I have written scenes. Right there! See? A scene.” That impulse
to defend doesn’t surprise me—many of us convince ourselves we’ve written a
scene when we haven’t done so. Not quite yet, anyway, because a few scenic elements—lovely images, a line or two of
snappy dialogue—don’t add up necessarily to scene. Still, I can’t tell you how
many students have appeared in my office to point at their drafts and argue
that the language there constitutes a scene.
My response to such a person might go something like this:
*You have not yet effectively moved us from general time to
specific time. As a reader I remain unconvinced that I have entered the micro
time of a moment. Time, because it’s not carefully defined, is muddled and
disorienting to the reader.
*I see that you have mentioned your characters are in, say, in
a modern high rise in Singapore, or the Bose Stereo Store at the outlet mall in
Woodburn, Oregon; that is, you’ve given the reader a place, but you have yet to
achieve space. You’ve put your characters
in a living room, but I have little idea what that living room looks like. Let
me say here that in describing that living room, don’t go hog wild with
description. Instead, you must limit your details to those that are equally vivid and essential. Leave out gratuitous images and instead discover detail
relevant to the emotional tenor of your piece. In this living room, are there chandeliers
from the ceiling and silk brocade on the chair? Or does a single sofa have a
hole in the middle of the cushion where a small dog is curled up and panting? Is
there a bowl of rotting pears on the table, a vase of paperwhites stretching
toward the one ray of sun? In your current draft, I might tell this writer, the
physical elements and the characters are not yet employed to swiftly,
succinctly, create a three-dimensional space for the reader to step into, too.
*I might tell the student who is still insistently jabbing
at her page, look, right here—a scene!,
that though her characters do speak to each other, yes, the words they say bury
the reader in information—the “information dump”— that could be delivered in a more
convincing, concise manner. That is, through exposition. Put most of the facts
in exposition, thereby leaving the dialogue to do what dialogue must do: reveal
character and move the story forward. To use dialogue to convey information is
to halt your story, to detach from your reader rather than pull her in.
Furthermore, in a piece of nonfiction, an essay or memoir, you’ve worked
awfully hard to establish voice, to infuse that voice with authority and
credibility, and you want to break into that voice with another character’s
voice only when you cannot express the sentiment as well or better. I remind
myself of my training as a journalist when I’m writing dialogue. If I was
interviewing a farmer named Tom Jones for an article on ag business, for
instance, I would not quote him as saying, “I am the third generation to farm
this land, and last year, my 492 hogs ate 5,222 pounds of grain and 2200
tubs of yogurt, which cost me thousands of dollars that I was not able to
recoup at the market.” I would paraphrase those facts while ending the graph
with a gem of a quote from his mouth, discovering (in the interview) the phrase
or phrases the farmer and the farmer alone could express. Something like this: “My
grandfather farmed this land, and after that my father,” Jones said. “It looks like
I’ll be the one to lose it.”
*Back to the now deflated student in my office: I might tell
her that all scenes require action—something critical must happen between or
among the people she’s introduced us to and within the space she’s defined for
us—someone must act, someone else react, while up, up goes the tension. If the
reader begins to sense we are in the scene merely for the scene’s sake, merely
because one person said something cute or witty or particularly cruel to
another, because a group of friends broke out a bong to get high, because a
couple slipped off to a bedroom to have sex, because a car broke down on a
lonely road, we will quickly grow disenchanted and lose interest in the story
as a whole. Scenes have beginnings, middles and ends—you get the reader in and
you provide a way out and something significant occurs in the middle. This is
what’s called in workshop jargon, “the pay off.”
In Sandra Scofield’s The
Scene Book
, she defines scenes as, “those passages in narrative when we
slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’
with characters in action.”
Sounds so easy, so straight-forward, but if it was easy and
straight-forward Sandra Scofield would not have had to write a whole book about
how to do it. Scene writing is a hugely intricate endeavor. First, a nonfiction
writer (a writer of any genre) must decide which moments related to this
particular period in her history are worth elevating to scene. Not everything
can be a scene, obviously, or we’d just be following you in real time and that
would become quickly, yawn, tedious. How
many scenes should you use in a given piece or chapter? In nonfiction, often
the form you settle on helps you decide the weight that’s going to be given to
scenes vs. the weight given to exposition (reflection, introspection, summary,
back story, etc). Personal essays tend to—not always, but tend to—rely more on “thinking
on the page,” and less on the fully wrought scene. The well developed half-scene
is common. Memoir is often—again, not always—more dependent on scene with
reflection/summary/exposition woven in where it’s needed and thoughtfully
employed depending on the narrative distance you seek.
What’s essential, and I realize I’ve already made this point
but shall make it again, is that once you settle on a scene, then commit to
that scene. Don’t gloss, don’t settle for wishy-washy or muddled. Don’t rush.
Employ all five senses, if you can, while you energize the characters and give
them something to DO. With artful subtlety, convince us that a shift took place
because this moment occurred, and that from this point on there’s no going
back. Scenes can give your piece urgency, and urgency is what engages the
 The note I write most
often on student manuscripts is “put us there.” Even when we think we’re in
scene—returning to that dispirited student at my desk—it’s frequently the case
that the narrator is actually recounting
a scene rather than opening a point of entry for the reader to step in to
what’s going on. This might be akin to sitting on the bus next to a guy who
insists on telling you the entire plot of the movie, Argo, from opening credits to the final tender relief to flash
across Ben Affleck’s face.  I can promise
you, it is much, much more satisfying to go to the theater and see Argo yourself.
When I taught a semester-long scene writing class not long
ago, I started off by showing the students a few clips from television shows
that I think illustrate these points I’ve been discussing. I know, television. A
pedestrian model. But I tell you, if you watch a 15-minute segment of any Law and Order episode and make yourself
pay attention to the development and evolution of a single scene, you’ll soon
realize how flat that scene is, really, even in the midst of melodrama. How
hackneyed and obvious. No subtlety in presenting the elements. We’re given information-packed
dialogue—something like, “I was alarmed when I heard that Bob had stolen a
seven-inch knife from my kitchen drawer to use in the murder of his
twenty-four-year-old neighbor.” If the director wants us to notice a bloody
handprint on the sliding glass door, the camera is going to shove our faces in that
image. If he wants us to see the victim’s boyfriend’s anguish, then the
crumpled man’s sobbing is front and center with background violins wailing about
him. And so on. Years ago, my daughters liked to watch the Law and Order show, when Vincent D’Anafrio played the slightly
off-balance detective. The girls called the program “Jen-Jen,” as in “are you watching
jen-jen tonight?” They came up with this name from two notes meant to notify us
that serious developments are at hand, and that also serve as the transition
between scenes: JEN JEN. So, in the kind of writing required for television cop/murder
drama, even the sounds must be overly obvious.
Compare this to one scene in a single episode of Breaking Bad. I realize the show’s
critics call it morally reprehensible, but the program is artfully bright in
terms of artistic elements—the acting, the mind-bending storylines
[unpredictable, yet inevitable], and,
I would argue, the exquisite care in the scene writing. If golden light shines
through a high window onto a filthy carpet and dusty furniture, there’s a
reason for it. If the character Jesse breaks into a vacant house and stumbles
over a prosthetic leg, that detail sets us up for the vulnerability he’s soon
to face in himself. If, later in the same scene, Jesse leaves a jar of
marshmallow cream on the counter, this glimpse of a detail is guaranteed to add
pathos to the larger dynamic at work and also adds to the sincerity of the
empathy we begin to feel for Jesse, totally messed up though this young man is.
Marshmallow cream. A cloying detail in most any narrative, hard to pull off
without over-instructing the reader/viewer (Hey! A metaphor!)—but in the Breaking Bad episode I’m thinking of,
it’s deftly handled with not a single neon arrow pointing to the detail, insisting
we notice it. In fact, I had to rewind and slow down the frame so I could read
the label. When I realized what it was, marshmallow cream, the scene came
together for me in one more interesting way. I got to express that delicious,
“Oh, I see.”
As a bit of an aside—I’ll return to the Breaking Bad scene below—here’s a brief passage from a nonfiction
piece I once read in a student publication. The essay was published, I think,
because it holds a lot of writerly promise. But this section, which purports to
be scene is not a scene. Let’s see if you agree with me:
“Jason and I had 10
p.m. curfews throughout high school, and while I generally stuck to it, he
often wandered home in the wee hours of the morning smelling of pot and booze.
His eyes and his actions, however, indicated that his nights consisted of
substances far more sinister. His boots on the hardwood floor woke my mother
and they screamed and argued with each other until Peter and I peeked out of
our rooms and our wide eyes met. Peter scurried back to bed as Jason approached
the room they shared and my mother returned to her bedroom and slammed the
door. Most nights, I was left staring into an empty hall. It was seldom,
though, that much time would pass before I heard my brother’s bedroom door
creak open. Jason, comfortable in pajamas, emerged, and we snuck down the hall
to the living room. He was always in charge of what we watched on TV those
early mornings, and it was always the History Channel.”
We get where they are generally, but where are these
characters precisely? The boy next to his bedroom door, hand on the knob, with
his mother a few feet away in the hall? Are they face-to-face in the living
room with the younger children peeking in from the hallway? I can’t “see” the
three-dimensional arrangement of space and people in the small hints about
place/ space. And what happens during the argument? Does the brother tap a
cigarette out of his pack and light it even though his mother has strictly
forbidden smoking in the house? Does the mother notice her robe has fallen open,
exposing her dingy nightgown, and respond by tying the belt tight and firm?
Does our narrator wrap her arms around the little brother while glaring at her
mother for what she thinks of as a profound failure to parent? Does this person
called “I” step in between her mother and older brother, tugging at her mom’s
hand and trying to lead her back to bed? Any one of those gestures would turn
the story in a different direction. Any one of those gestures would clue us in
to the stirred up dynamic and emotional tenor. But because I haven’t been given
detail to inform the emotional stakes,
I haven’t been allowed into the moment.
 Furthermore, why are
we in general time rather than specific time? Put us in one time, one late
night, one argument and more distinction and depth is possible. What kind of
pajamas is the brother wearing when he reemerges? How does the television light
her brother’s face as the two sit down together? What is the texture of the couch’s
fabric, comfortable or itchy? What’s the subject that night on The History Channel—a bloody war, the
excavation of a king’s bones, a president’s deeply held secret life?
Do all of these questions need to be answered to make a
fully realized scene? I don’t know, because I’m not fully aware what the piece
is about yet. There are too many fuzzy abstractions in this recounted moment for us to add up the
meaning, and we have not yet entered specific time. Also, what brings a scene to
life is relevant specificity.
OK, back to the Breaking
episode. The one with the prosthetic leg and marshmallow cream. The
title of this one is “Peek a Boo,” and it’s one of the best examples ever of
sharp, smart scene writing. Jesse, a main character in the show, breaks into
the house of a couple of meth addicts aiming to take back, with force, the
money they’ve stolen from him. He thinks the house is empty until he finds
their child who’s been left alone in his bed. A filthy, skinny boy about four-years-old
in a squalid room covered by a flea-ridden blanket. When the meth parents come
home, a tremendous tension is launched, not just because Jesse has broken in,
but because the child is there, too—just
watch this episode and note the ways, again and again, the little boy reveals
Jesse’s character—his vulnerability, his self-deception, the weakness of his
façade—and ups the ante when it comes to the stakes. The boy has only one line
of dialogue, “I’m hungry.” Brilliant. We do not see Jesse make a sandwich for a
child (before the parents return home) who’s clearly desperate, uncared for,
needy. That would be too obvious. What we get instead is a flash of that jar of
marshmallow cream left on the counter, and the boy eating a fistful of awful
white stuff that leaves a mess on his face. That’s just one of the many moments
that work well in this perfectly delineated scene. In general, the scene would
be flat, ordinary, and predictable without the boy. Adding this character, and
using physical gesture over dialogue, is like sending an emotional missile into
the middle of the room.
Television is, of course, a different medium than memoir
writing. Way different. As instructive as these programs can be to our writing
processes, it’s far better to find examples of great scene writing in
contemporary (or not so contemporary) literature. So I’ll leave you with a list
of some of the essays/books I bring with me and present as models when I’m
teaching a scene writing workshop, examples of nonfiction prose that succeed
brilliantly in “putting us there,” with micro time, action that takes us
somewhere new and unexpected, well rendered characters, and scintillating
*Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time,
though published forty some years ago, tops my list. One scene after another
doing tremendous work in the narrative, with exquisitely selective detail.
*Tobias Wolff’s This
Boy’s Life,
a scene driven memoir; as well as Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception.
*Jo Ann Beard’s Boys
of My Youth
, especially “Fourth State of Matter.”
*Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography
of a Face
*Darrin Strauss’ Half
a Life.
*Mark Spragg’s Where
Rivers Change Direction.
*Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise.
*Mark Doty’s Firebird.
*Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace.
*Anthony Shadid’s House
of Stone.
*Jane Bernstein’s Bereft.
And so many more. . .full of beautiful, poignant (never
sentimental) scenes you’ll never forget.
Upcoming Alaska events featuring Debra Gwartney:

  • Friday-Sunday,
    May 3-5
    , weekend workshop on “The Art of
    Scene Writing in Personal Narrative” at

    Campus in Homer. To register, go to or, if you’re in
    Homer, stop by

    Campus off Pioneer. The workshop is listed as CED A049, R30 and CRN
    #40646. Call 907-235-1651.
  • Monday,
    May 6,
    , Brown bag lunch seminar on Publishing
    Nonfiction: Personal Narrative, Memoir, Personal Essay. Free admission to
    49 Writers members. Suggested donation of $5 for non-members.
  • Monday,
    May 6,
    , Talk on Pitfalls of the Memoir. Cheese
    and wine will be served. $10 for 49 Writers members, $15 for non-members. Register onlineBoth May 6
     will take place at
    Public Media,
    3877 University Drive,

3 thoughts on “Debra Gwartney: A Few Thoughts on Writing Scenes (for memoir writers)”

  1. Nobody has ever explained scene to me quite like this – thank you so much! It's something I've long struggled with.

  2. This blog is a wonderful teaching tool! Thank you so much for the book list.


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