Making Scenes in a Memoir

Whenever I started to get fussy as a child, on the verge of a meltdown, or worse yet, a bona fide tantrum, my mother would say to me, “Don’t make a scene.” I knew, then, it was time to settle down, to rein myself in, for fear that I’d provoke my father. “Cool your coppers,” he always said.

So I, like countless other kids, went through childhood trying hard not to make a scene. Thankfully, we future writers never quite managed to stop ourselves.

I’m thinking about this because scene is the lifeblood of any narrative, whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. Fiction writers tend to get this immediately. I’ve noticed, though, that some nonfiction writers, particularly memoirists, tend to skip the scenes in favor of a summary of events, as if it’s enough to tell us what happened. . .and sometimes it is. Not every moment deserves a scene, but if the moment is large enough to cause a shift in the characters’ relationships to one another, or to the world around them, or to their dramatic situations, then we need to be able to participate in that shift by feeling as if we’re living the moment as it occurs. For the memorist, this often means recreating the lived experience in a scene.

Here, then, are some tips for how to construct a scene:

  1. Have a central dramatic episode that requires a scene. This doesn’t have to be a large event or action, although it might be. Perhaps you want to write about the night your house caught on fire. A smaller action might also require dramatization. Maybe you want to write about the time your aunt said, in passing, “Oh, my dear, plain girls shouldn’t wear so much makeup,” and what that did to your sense of your identity. Either way, there has to be a high point for the scene to move toward.
  1. Make the scene palpable by relying on sensory details. Set the scene with visual details, as well as with details of smell, sound, taste, and touch. Such details convince readers that the experience being presented actually happened—is happening, in fact, as we read. Sensory details create a dream world and invite readers into it.
  1. Use dialogue that pushes the scene along while also revealing something about the people involved. There’s no time for filler—no, “Hello, how are you.” No, “I’m fine thank you.” Unless you’re wanting to emphasize the awkward conversation of a strained relationship, cut to the chase. Craft the dialogue so it sounds natural but also so it reveals. Pay attention to subtext—to the thing not said beneath the thing that is said.
  1. Pace the scene. Remember that any scene is comprised of self-contained units structured in the same way that the entire scene is. Each unit reaches some high point. After you’ve firmly hooked your reader, you can slow down. You can use description, stage business, setting, reflection, before turning to the next unit of the scene.

5  Build the tension until something has to explode. Someone says or does something that creates a change and that also makes possible the next scene in your narrative—storytelling is a process of cause and effect. Repeat as often as necessary to reach the highest point of the narrative—the one that changes everything forever, or perhaps presents the opportunity for that change, an opportunity that someone refuses to take, which is a change in its own right.

Memoirists have to relive experiences on the page in order for readers to live them for the first time. Don’t hold back. Remember the quality of light on a certain day, the way the air smelled, the music playing on a radio, the taste of an apple, the way the quilt on your bed felt when you ran your hand over it—whatever it takes to make the scene come to life. Follow it to a pivotal moment—that action, that line of dialogue, that thing you’ve never been able to forget.




  1. Richard Gilbert on July 6, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Great principles here, Lee. I especially like the guideline that scene may be called for when the event changes someone’s outlook. There’s no more effective way to convey experience or move readers emotionally than through scene.

    • Lee Martin on July 6, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      You’re right about the effectiveness of the well-rendered scene, Richard. We have to ask ourselves why we’re called our readers to attend to a scene, and usually it’s because it’s a pivotal moment in some way.

Leave a Comment