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What is a scene?

Novelists are always told to show, not tell. They are also told to ‘write in scenes’ which means broadly the same thing. But do memoir writers also need to follow this advice?

Yes, absolutely. A memoir will not work well if it only really has one character and consists mainly of what happens in that one character’s head.

So what is a scene? First let’s consider things which are not a scene:

  • Description
  • Characters thinking about things
  • The author telling us his / her views
  • Quotes from other texts
  • Accounts of what people generally do
  • Backstory (unless it is told as a scene)

That doesn’t mean that you can never use these kinds of writing – but if your writing consists largely of sections that fit into the categories above you should hear alarm bells ringing.

So what is a scene?

  • A scene happens in present time (not necessarily present tense). It is about what happens on a specific occasion.
  • A scene generally involves at least two people and is about the interaction of character (even though that interaction could be non-verbal).
  • It happens in a specific place – and the writer uses that place in order to mirror / augment / contrast with the events of a scene.
  • A scene turns. In other words it sets off in one direction but changes track at some point. The character(s) start off wanting one thing but then that is altered or changes.
  • Due to the fact that scenes turn, then a scene involves an emotional shift or change in one character – and hopefully in more characters. This can be very subtle but it should be there. If there is no change – then why have the scene?
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