I made a little video to supplement a lecture on scene, summary and musing–featuring Oscar the dog.
Here’s more on scene and summary in memoir:
In a memoir, you’re telling a story, stitching together vivid moments from your life into a plot. Telling a story from your life means slowing down at times to show the reader the important moments and turning points, the key conversations and experiences—almost as if they were in real time. But it also means summarizing swaths of time and experience because the reader would be bored if we tried to show too many moments. It would be like watching a real-time Andy Warhol movie—interesting experiment, boring to watch for hours on end. So we have to move the story along with summary (and we don’t have to summarize everything). Storytelling in memoir also involves reflection, or musing, about what those experiences meant to the narrator, the dawning realizations.
There are two types of writing in most fiction: scene and summary. Judith Barrington, in her Writing the Memoir, adds another in memoir: musing. It’s helpful to think of scene and summary in cinematic terms. Sometimes you need the long, establishing shot (summary) to let the viewer get the lay of the land, then you go in for the close shot (the scene). Inexperienced writers often write in either scene or summary. All-scene can be confusing, as the reader doesn’t get any back story or context to the story. All-summary can be flat, with no moments that come alive.
In creative writing classes, the mantra is always “show, don’t tell.” That’s fine insofar as it applies to making sure you write with specific, concrete details (a silver planet of hair) as opposed to abstract generalizations (weird hairdo). But in a memoir, you have to both show and tell. Showing is writing scene, recreating an experience for the reader that they can hear, smell, see, and feel. It’s slowing down time. A scene may involve action, location, a sense of movement through time, and dialogue. Telling is summary, or expository writing, where we give the reader necessary background, or skip forward in life to the next important moment. Summary compresses experience with no effort to recreate it for the reader. Musing is where the narrator gives us some internal dialogue, some reflection, and makes some sense of the experience they were living through.
Good memoirs vary the scene, summary and musing. Varying the pace and focus of the writing helps keep the reader interested. As you read memoirs, be aware of what is scene and what is summary, and what function they are serving in the book. Often the writer clues us in that a scene is coming when a broad period of time (“Every summer my family went to a ghost town in Colorado”) to a specific moment (“One Sunday in June, when I was about seven, I thought I saw a real ghost.”) The scene dives in from broad summary language or description to a specific moment with sensory details.
There’s no specific length for scenes or summary. Either may be a matter of a few lines, or several pages. It all comes down to the best way to tell the story to the reader.
In Tell It Slant, by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, the authors argue that there is often too little scene in creative nonfiction:
“Generally speaking, scene is the building block of creative nonfiction. There are exceptions to this statement—more academic or technically oriented writing, the essay of ideas perhaps—but overall, the widespread notion that nonfiction is the writer’s thoughts presented in an expository or summarizing way has done little but produce quantities of unreadable nonfiction. Scene is based on action unreeling before us, as it would in a film, and it will draw on the same techniques as fiction—dialogue, description, point of view, specificity, concrete detail.”