Memoir: The Scene: Write Better

Your reader is reading your book because the title draws them in. You provide your reader with a powerful emotional experience and great facts as the story develops. If you’re writing a romance, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is falling in love herself. If you’re writing a thriller, you must create in your reader the illusion that he is in mortal danger and has only the tiniest chance of saving his life (and all of humanity). If you’re writing a fantasy, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is actually in another world where all is different and wonderful and magical. If you are writing a memoir, the abuse and triumph is happening to your reader.

If you fail to create these emotions in your reader, then you have failed. If you create these emotions in your reader, then you have succeeded. The better you create the desired emotional experience in your reader, the better your book. In memoir, this is called using an element of fiction. You create a full emotional experience for your reader.

You are your own point of view in a memoir. It’s your POV. The reader must become the POV character.
Overview of Scene

A Scene has the following three-part pattern:

  1. Goal- what POV character wants desperately
  2. Conflict/concerns-obstacles in way of getting that/the struggle
  3. Disaster- do not resolve yet. Reader must turn the page.

A Sequel has the following three-part pattern:

  1. Reaction-POV reacting viscerally to Disaster. Hurting. Show time passage. No action, time for reaction. Stagger. Eventually, must get a hold of self. Look for options but none. Start with internal instinctive reaction and move slowly to thinking and reasoning. Very important to each time show internal to external to show reality. One or more for each. Paragraph or sequence of paragraphs. Feeling, then instinct.
  2. Dilemma- a situation with no options. Come to least-bad option…Own paragraph/s.
  3. Decision-Make decision. Pro-active again. New goal.

And now you’ve come full circle. You’ve gone from Scene to Sequel and back to the Goal for a new Scene. This is why the Scene-Sequel pattern is so powerful. A Scene leads naturally to a Sequel, which leads naturally to a new Scene. And so on forever. At some point, you’ll end the cycle. You’ll give your POV character either Ultimate Victory or Ultimate Defeat and that will be the end of the book. But until you get there, the alternating pattern of Scene and Sequel will carry you through. This is not easy but this formula will carry you through. Best of luck. It can actually be fun.

Here is a simple example:  The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.

Note the key points here. This is objective. We present the Motivation as it would be shown by a videocamera. Nothing here indicates that we are in Jack’s point of view. That comes next, but in the Motivation we keep it simple and sharp and clean.

The Reaction is internal and subjective, and you present it that way, exactly as your POV character would experience it — from the inside. This is your chance to make your reader be your POV character. To repeat myself, this must happen in its own paragraph (or sequence of paragraphs). If you leave it in the same paragraph as the Motivation, then you risk whip-sawing the reader. Which no reader enjoys.

The Reaction is more complex than the Motivation. The reason is that it is internal, and internal processes happen on different time-scales. When you see a tiger, in the first milliseconds, you only have time for one thing — fear. Within a few tenths of a second, you have time to react on instinct, but that is all it will be — instinct, reflex. But shortly after that first reflexive reaction, you will also have time to react rationally, to act, to think, to speak. You must present the full complex of your character’s reactions in this order, from fastest time-scale to slowest. If you put them out of order, then things just don’t feel right. You destroy the illusion of reality. And your reader won’t keep reading because your writing is “not realistic.” Even if you got all your facts right.

Here is a simple example: A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard!”

Now let’s analyze this. Note the three parts of the Reaction:

  1. Feeling: “A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins.” You show this first, because it happens almost instantly.
  2. Reflex: “He jerked his rifle to his shoulder . . .” You show this second, as a result of the fear. An instinctive result that requires no conscious thought.
  3. Rational Action and Speech: “. . . sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. ‘Die, you bastard!'” You put this last, when Jack has had time to think and act in a rational way. He pulls the trigger, a rational response to the danger. He speaks, a rational expression of his intense emotional reaction.

It is legitimate to leave out one or two of these three parts. (You can’t leave out all three or you have no Reaction.) But there is one critical rule to follow in leaving parts out: Whatever parts you keep in must be in the correct order. If there is a Feeling, it must come first. If there is a Reflex, it must never come before a Feeling. If there is some Rational Action, it must always come last. This is simple and obvious and if you follow this rule, your Reactions will be perfectly structured time after time.

Now write another and another. The reaction you wrote will lead to something new that is external and objective that you write in a new paragraph.

Hope this helps.

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