How Scene Writing Saved Me (and How It Will Save You)

March 10, 2022 § 14 Comments

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

Back in the grunge era, I learned the Show Don’t Tell edict of storytelling. My tweed-sport-coat wearing professor dedicated an entire semester to sensory details, dialogue, and precise actions. Every workshop ended with the same question. How can you make this come so alive I feel like I’m there?

As someone who woke from dreams with complete, albeit bizarre, narrative arcs, and recalled memories like movies, my flannel-loving heart was hooked. I vowed to become a show-don’t-tell master and spent the late nineties and early aughts following advice from authors like Chuck Palahniuk who once announced on Myspace (remember Myspace?) a six-month ban on the words think and feel.

By the time I transitioned to creative nonfiction, scene writing came easy. In fact, I showed so much of my pain it sometimes felt like I’d traveled back to the bizarre, zany, sometimes funny, and often scary times I’d once lived through. Workshop instructors lauded my showing, and while they sometimes asked for different, they never asked for more. Instead, they posed questions like what does this mean and why is this important?

Thinking I hadn’t shown well enough, I polished my dialogue and laser-focused my details. I believed clear sentences would coax meaning from the page, even if I couldn’t articulate it beyond look at what happened or look what they did.

As a writing coach, I’ve watched other writers fall into the same trap—not just with painful material, but with scenes I might label as check out this cool/weird/strange/thing that happened.

So much fantastically written check it out and this happened to me languishes in slush piles, or receives kind, yet unhelpful notes from editors like “strong voice, vividly written, but it’s just not right for us.”

Writing well is hard, no matter the genre. But memoir’s burden is heavier. The writing process is like describing your face without looking in the mirror. You can do it, but it’s probably going to take a while before we know it’s you. Yet working and reworking painful material to no avail is exhausting. And even when you’re not dipping into tough stuff, ambiguous rejections and queries to nowhere zap a writer’s power—an experience I know too well. I can’t count the times I’ve felt so powerless over my writing, I’ve begun phone calls with, “Tell me why I shouldn’t rip this up.”

While those phone calls saved many projects, studying the scene helped me regain my power.

Debra Gwartney, author of Live Through This believes the subtitle of most memoirs is this is how I coped. The scene is the building block where coping is revealed. It has an elegant architecture where each part serves a specific role.

The setup establishes the situation. A catalyst launches us into the scene’s conflict, which deepens as the moment unfolds. Many writers intuitively nail these sections. But the bridge between this happened and this is what it means takes place during a key part called the emotional beat. In the beat, your narrator decides something, and in doing so, we see them cope.

String together a bunch of meaningful scenes and you’ll uncover a theme. Do this from beginning to end, and you’ll have a character arc. Whittle that arc to its central focus and you’ll find your universal. Polish that baby, and you’ll have a compelling memoir.

In 2015, I read Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, which he says is the responsibility of every creative nonfiction writer. Sue William Silverman beautifully reveals which voices do the telling and showing in her Brevity essay on innocence and experience.

Here’s what I’ve learned. In scene writing, you need to show, and occasionally tell, but unless you’ve decided something, you’ve just got a well written situation, and that’s not good enough. 

Understanding scene architecture and the emotional beat saved me from the show-don’t-tell trap that had me endlessly wallowing in past pains or getting lost in reveries about good times. It empowered me to make choices and decide what work each scene needed to do, which determined how I framed my material and where I placed my focus.

This gave me the dexterity to recognize all the potential stories hidden in every single experience. Storytelling is about truth from a certain angle. Understand that angle and you can take any defining experience and turn it into a scene-driven blogpost, essay, memoir, or feature film that’s both meaningful and so alive we’ll always feel like we’re there. 


Want to learn how to nail your scenes? Lisa is teaching Heartbeats: Using a scene’s emotional rhythm to build momentum and captivate readers and agents through Creative Nonfiction on Wednesday March 16.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, speaker, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. Her essays and short stories have appeared in HuffPostHippocampus Literary Magazine, the New Guard Review and Kenyon Review Online. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia soon after her brother’s suicide led to a promise that ultimately saved her. 


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