Day 7: On Scene & Story

Last night, over dinner, Marisa and I were talking about the difference between our two creative writing courses.  Marisa teaches English 323 (Intermediate Creative Nonfiction) and I teach English 321 (Intermediate Fiction).  Both courses are the sequel to English 224, the multi-genre introductory course at UNM and the first single genre creative writing course many of our students have taken.  In a nutshell, by the time our conversation was over, I had come to this conclusion:  in Creative Nonfiction, students are so focused on the “story,” that they often forget to write scenes.  Conversely, in Fiction, students are so focused on writing scene (showing), that they often lose the story.  So what then is “Story”?

In The Situation & The Story, Vivien Gornick writes about creative nonfiction by delineating between (as the title suggests) the situation and the story.  The situation is the thing that happened.  This could be something huge–a death in the family, a long term illness, a major traumatic event–or it could be something small–a relationship to frogs, a camping trip gone wrong, an encounter with a stranger.  Whatever “it” is, unless the writer “makes sense” of that situation, there is no story.  In her own words:

 What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

That larger sense?  That is the story, the thing that keeps the reader reading and, I would argue, the thing that keeps the writer writing.  In that matter, for Marisa’s students, rendering the story (the meaning) is the easy part (or perhaps the “easier” part).  In memoir, story is the stuff our heads are made of: our thoughts, our interpretations, our worries and our obsessions, our conclusions and our connections, our ability to explain why the situation matters in the greater context of ourselves and our world. Perhaps it is “easier” to write because that thinking voice exists in our heads all the time.

So what then of fiction?  For me, the answer is the same, but this time, rather than existing in the writer’s head, the meaning rests within the characters.  What are their motivations?  Their thoughts?  Their interpretations and worries and obsessions?  What connects their actions, and what conclusions might the reader draw via those connections?  In my own novel, Jackie Saunders, an overnight desk clerk, embarks on an affair with a married woman in town for business.  On the initial draft of this novel (written four years ago), the novel was written almost entirely in scene: two hundred pages of drinking and fighting and general debauchery.  But what the novel lacked was a clear understanding of my characters’ motivations.  What did they want?  What drove them to do the things they did?  To be in the situations and places they were in?  While I’d spent a lot of time thinking about how they might react, I more or less ignored WHY they acted.

In short, I’ve spent the last three and a half years diving into and attempting to understand these characters as deeply as I understand myself.  That includes immersing myself in every aspect of their lives and their intertwining relationships and their hopes and their fears, much of which isn’t making it to the actual page.  It is an unending yet highly rewarding task and I think (hope?) it is bringing my book closer and closer to its completion.  Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that its latest incarnation is a much more realized draft.

Today, writers, perhaps spend some time reflecting on what your story (novel or essay or short story or, dare I try to include it?, poem) is really about.  And then, do two things:

  1. Reflect on the “thing” (Grief, Resentment, Loss, Love, Stagnation) in a clear “telling” voice.  What do you think about this thing?  Don’t be afraid to come right out and say it.  Why do you think this way?  What has happened to cause it?
  2. Along with that, write a scene that embodies this “thing” (the “emblematic scene”).  Think in terms of evidence.  You (or your characters) say you (they) feel one way, now “show” it to us.

While you can do these separately (as practice), it’s probably best to work on integrating the two in whatever way that works for you.  Poets, I would recommend working first in prose and then focusing these meditations down (though you, of course, will know the best approach).  Happy writing!

6 thoughts on “Day 7: On Scene & Story

  1. Sam, a wonderful, thoughtful post — largely reflective, lacking scene! I’d like to clarify that in early drafts, my students tend toward one or the other — reflection or scene — so that the “story” gets lost or goes unillustrated/undramatized. Scenes — the dramatized moments played out through forward-moving action and close detail, the stuff that happens and is shown happening — naturally gather emphasis in a piece of prose. A prose piece all in scene may result in a sameness of pace, energy, and overall affect/effect. A prose piece lacking scene may do the same. The reader may become lulled. I do see early drafts of nonfiction pieces that are entirely in scene, and their impact tends to be anecdotal: Well, isn’t it interesting that this happened to you? Now, what does it all mean? The work of scene in a nonfiction piece, on the other hand, is to give concrete evidence and relieve the sense of being talked/narrated to nonstop.

    MPC

  2. “Perhaps it is “easier” to write because that thinking voice exists in our heads all the time.”

    ‘dems fightin’ words, missy! Must disagree.

    First, to understand the effects of the story the CNF writer must know oneself as deeply as the fiction writer must know his/her characters. How many of us really know ourselves deeply? I mean really really deeply? and be willing and able to share that knowledge with the world through our work? “easier” ? I think not. I think it is all (creative non fiction, fiction, and even poetry) difficult in different ways.

    Also, the “voice” like the persona, (or like the fictional character) in CNF is partly a construct… often only realized through the act of writing, of putting it down on the page.

    “Nothing is less real than realism. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meanings of things.” ~Georgia O’Keefe

    I think Gornick can be applied to fiction in this way:

    What happened to the *character* is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the *character-or-writer-or-narrator* is able to make of what happened.

    –Jenn

    PS: I like your suggestion on writing for today

  3. Perhaps I should clarify, the emphasis on this post was on the ‘perhaps.’ This was mostly a mediation on what I saw as the reasoning behind why CNF early writers have a tendency to not show scene vs. why early Fiction writers have a tendency to not have enough telling. I noticed the same thing in the multi-genre course. Students were often “better” at the CNF portion than the Fiction for similar reasons as described above. But please note: the post was, in no way, meant to be a generalization over ALL writers nor meant to divide the two into over-simplified terms (which perhaps it did) I know in my early writing, my CNF early work was “easier” to write than my early Fiction because characters were already “real” and complex in my head (vs. fiction their “realness” is a different kind of exploring). Of course “easier” is in quotes because it is a relative term. Really, the purpose was to think about creating meaning. How is it created. Why is it created. Etc.

  4. I just like needling you fiction people 🙂 The post was certainly well written and thoughtful as Marisa noted … creating meaning is what we all strive for, no matter our genre (yes, even the poets)

  5. haha, yes. Honestly, I might say the most “difficult” is poetry 🙂 But yes, also been thinking about this and I’m not sure if it is even just “early” writers. My example above shows me doing it. I remember being in a grad level CNF workshop and wanting more scene (Though you jenn, write so strongly in scene its probably why I love your writing so much). Perhaps its more about the inclinations of the genres? Gonna think on this more. Thanks for pushing my thoughts further.

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