The big shocker this winter: making scenes is hard. At least it’s a lot more work to give readers an experience than to pound out summary. The payoff’s obvious—the reader gets to immerse in another life—and scenes may even help me cut swaths of fat exposition from my memoir. All this is clarifying, and my writing feels more like conscious craft these days. Always in this latest revision, I’m trying to bring more showing to the foreground and less recapping. Scenes are defined by action—something’s happening before our eyes—and usually include dialogue, a strong point of view, and are highly visual.

Donald M. Murray has a great example of the power of visual details in The Craft of Revision, Fifth Edition:


A parent always wants to protect a child and never, no matter how irrational it is, stops feeling guilty if a child is killed or dies from an illness, feeling there must have been something the parent could have done.



Remember me not

when I was kept from you

in the waiting room, not

when I sat in an office signing

your dying, not

when I pushed you on the swing

higher than you had ever flown

and you looked back as I grew small,

certain I would always be able

to save you.

In Murray’s poem about his daughter’s death, in a flashback we see what he saw—her glance back—that revealed her confidence in him. We understand, without being told, that the memory, surely always poignant, now haunts him because he let her down. He couldn’t save her. Since we see this, we understand his emotions, his feeling of loss and guilt—even that he betrayed her trust. That such a short, spare piece can stir empathy and convey so much is astonishing.

Perhaps in a longer scene, and surely in a narrative made of scenes, the writer might move readers to feel an emotion as well as to empathize. Just explaining won’t hack it, because the two techniques trigger completely different areas of the brain, explains Jordan E. Rosenfeld in Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story one Scene at a Time. Visual scenes of unfolding action stimulate the brain’s visual cortex—our mind’s eye—and allow readers to participate. In contrast, exposition affects the inner ear. “While the eye allows the reader to become emotionally involved, and activates the heart and the viscera, the inner ear seems to be linked more closely to the function of sound,” writes Rosenfeld. Voice is important, she allows, but explaining can make readers feel bored, like they’re “sitting passively by and receiving a lecture.”

Here’s part of a scene from Alice Munro’s story “Royal Beatings”:

“All right,” he says, meaning that’s enough, more than enough, this part is over, things can proceed. He starts to loosen his belt.

Flo has stopped anyway. She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, then there comes a time when you can’t draw back. . . .

At the first or maybe the second crack of pain, she draws back. She will not accept it. She runs around the room, she tries to get to the door. Her father blocks her off. Not an ounce of courage, or of stoicism in her, it would seem. She runs, she screams, she implores. Her father is after her, cracking the belt at her when he can, then abandoning it and using his hands. Bang over the ear, bang over the other ear. Back and forth, her head ringing. Bang in the face. Up against the wall and bang in the face. He shakes her and hits her against the wall, he kicks her legs. She is incoherent, insane, shrieking: Forgive me, Oh please, forgive me! Not yet, he throws her down.

Saying “My father beat me” lets us know a fact but doesn’t help us imagine the experience. With our intellects, we can understand only the tip of the iceberg. So making scenes is the technique of choice when the writer is asking for readers’ emotional understanding. Here’s a scene from near the end of Bernard Cooper’s memoir essay “Winner Take Nothing”:

After loading the boxes into my car, I came back inside the kitchen to say goodbye. “I have something for you,” my father said. He beamed at me and stepped aside. Atop the counter, a pink bakery box yawned open to reveal an enormous cake, its circumference studded with ripe strawberries. Slivered almonds, toasted gold, had been evenly pressed into a mortar of white frosting, every spare surface dotted with florets. In the center was written, in goopy blue script, Papa loves Bernard. For a second, I thought there’d been some mistake. I’d never called my father Papa. Dad, yes. Pop, perhaps. The nickname didn’t mesh with the life I knew. If the years of silence between us had an inverse, that cloying, layered cake was it.

Back to Donald M. Murray, who says in Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem that the light went on for him about this fundamental building block when someone told him, supposedly quoting Joseph Conrad, to write narrative in “scenes of confrontation.” In the above example, conflict suffuses Cooper’s scene.

Lest we get too simplistic about the components of scene, Alice LaPlante observes in her excellent textbook The Making of a Story that all scenes blend telling and showing. There’s much more telling than is recognized, she says, because technically only three things constitute showing: dialogue; actions; and basic objective descriptions of objects or settings that a reader would see if he were there. She’s a little strict about this, but is making a point to strike at the sanctimony of those who advocate pure scene-by-scene construction. The depiction of viewpoint, so basic to voice and usually intrinsic to scene, is telling.

Writers fall somewhere on a continuum of showing vs. telling, their particular mix defining their style, says LaPlante, who prints a scene from Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres that’s mostly shown; another passage from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News leans more heavily on relaying point of view; and the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” uses telling and showing equally for rich texture and satisfying point-of-view lines like, “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”

But try to show the important stuff, LaPlante emphasizes. Use exposition (she calls it narration) to fill gaps (which, she shows, arise constantly within scenes) and to set up a scene. “Ideally,” she writes, “these two elements of writing are organically intertwined.” Recognize that “often we can tell something more efficiently, elegantly, beautifully, or subtly” than by dramatizing it.

So this matter is complex, but the writer’s gut seems a good guide. The important lesson I’ve taken is to use scenes of unfolding experience involving action and conflict whenever possible, whatever their mix of two very different modes of writing. Yeah, it’s basically the timeless advice “Show, don’t tell,” if tell isn’t taken too literally.


  • Shirley says:

    What a wonderful way to both simplify and complicate the idea of writing scenes. I loved the photo you selected to illustrate the visual dimension of story telling.

    Having written mostly exposition and argument (thesis essays) all my life, I find it both liberating and challenging to now focus on sensory perception. Thanks for this tour of several different books and for explaining your own take on the oft-quoted “show don’t tell” advice.

  • I just stumbled upon this. Thanks so much for mentioning my book. So glad it helped you!

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