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!