Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t Write Scenes!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


         Okay now, you’re saying, I thought the “bad” in bad advice was ironic, but after reading your title I’m thinking maybe what you’re pushing here really is bad bad advice.  And I will admit that maybe today’s title overstates a bit, and that I was trying to catch your eye…..But, I mean it.  Or partly mean it.  What I really mean is “Don’t Write Scenes Exclusively.”

As someone who has read thousands of workshop pieces, both fiction and non-, and who has read over a hundred theses, I can say that there is a certain sameness to the work.  Not that the writing and themes and events aren’t wonderfully varied and full of both possibility and dazzling writing.  It’s just that almost 99.9% of that writing is in one mode and that mode is the minute by minute, often second by second, dramatic unfolding of events that we have come to call scene.  Somewhere along the line the “Show, Don’t Tell” police got hold of America’s young writers and scared them straight.  Straight out of summary, exposition, condensed thought, essayistic pace, and idea.  Straight out of the notion that time in a book can be manipulated, pushed in and pulled out like an accordion, so that one important event might take ten pages and another a sentence.   And straight away from the idea that variety is one of the deepest pleasure in any art, and that reading back to back blocks of same-sized scenes does not constitute variety.     

Let’s back up here for a minute.  You better learn to write scenes.  To write something unfolding in the equivalent of real time is one of the most vital skills a writer can have.  And it’s one of the hardest to learn since you can’t really be lazy about it.  Fred has to walk over to that table. Ginger has to throw that book at his head.  And the reason “show don’t tell” remains such important advice is that the beginning writer is very resistant to taking us along during all the walking and throwing.   To get anywhere then, a young writer had better master being able to write a good scene.

But let’s say you get this scene thing down, that you’ve mastered laying those bricks.  Then how about jazzing things up a bit?  What do I mean exactly?  In no particular order I mean:

*What about starting into one of those scenes late and ending early, in effect, making the scene just the nut of the scene?   And what about surrounding that nut-of-a-scene with the opposite of scene, say summary—beautifully written summary of course — of the four years before the scene?

* What about experimenting with a section of book or essay or story where idea, not time chronology, is the unifying factor?  Obvious examples of this are Kundera, Roth, and Didion.  In fact if you look back at early Roth it seems the real breakthrough came when he broke out of traditional chronology and became, in effect, a fictional essayist.

* If this is too radical why not just try practicing pulsing back and forth between summary and scene, in the manner of traditional 18th and 19th century novels?  Who ever said condensed, thoughtful lines about human nature, and the nature of your characters, was against the rules?

* For non-fiction writers, and hell for poets too, why not spend a few lines of ‘graphs ascending into the realm of pure idea.  I know it’s dangerous, and can blow up in the wrong hands.  But why not try?  You never have to even show it to anyone.  I drove through the hometown of a poet yesterday who did almost nothing but this, and did it beautifully.  Of course the ideas must have drama, and at its best this sort of writing dramatizes the way the mind works, the way it eddies and swirls and buffets against itself.

And that’s just for starters (written this rainy morning in a hotel room in Athens, Georgia with too little coffee.)

Become a master scene-maker by all means.  Making little movies with words is a wondrous thing.  Just remember that there are also other things words are good for.

So spread it around: Tell, don’t Show!

  1. leRoi writes:

    Too little coffee does you good and results in a brilliant mini-essay. What child ever looked to Mommy or Daddy with skittish expectation and said, “Show me a story.”

  2. Bill writes:

    There’s a terrific essay by Pico Iyer in the current Harper’s about his schoolboy years in England. It’s in what I’d call reflective expositional mode–the writer never leaving the present of his writing desk, but sitting there recalling, much the mode of Nabokov in his memoir Speak Memory. Iyer’s piece in subject matter also recalls Orwell’s “Such, Such were the Joys,” but in a more pleasant vein. I bring this up because Iyer’s essay is all telling, all generic mode (we would do this, we would do that), and it’s wonderful. Well, all generic mode till the penultimate section, which is a scene that has been built up to with all the exposition. And it’s wonderful, apparently part of a forthcoming memoir from FS&G, which we’ll have to read as we continue this discussion.

  3. Dave writes:

    Scene 1:

    Rich and Bill in a cabin in Alaska. Suddenly the front door smashes open.
    Bill: Oh no, it’s Dave!
    Rich: He must have heard that we were bad-mouthing his Don’t Write Scenes post!
    Dave advances into the cabin without thinking a single thought or once quoting Thoreau.
    Dave: Arrghh!
    Bill: I think he’s going to hurt us!
    Rich: He’s so strong. And handsome.
    Dave: I won’t hurt you fellow writers. I have simply come to say that I want to meet you half-way. I too was once a writer of scenes and so I dream of going back to be. As A.R. Ammons said “Firm ground is not available ground,” which reminds me of a little lecture I’d like to give…..
    Long minutes pass. Bill and Rich look out the window at the snow-capped mountains.
    Dave: Oh, and by the way, while I agree with Bill that Roth’s monologues are essentailly dramatic becasue they are told in the voice of a character, I think this also points to the possibilities of drama within the essayistic monologue. Fiction and non-.
    Bill: Well said.
    Rich: Yes. and thank you for not hurting us.
    Dave: No worries.

    • Tommy writes:

      Scene 2:

      Dave outside, resting on his laurels. The sun setting a delirious daisy yellow, those pink, orange, and magentas turned indigo, reserved for dirtier air.
      Dave: You know, I sure came a long way to meet those guys in the middle, but it was worth it. Wait a minute. I came a lot longer than half way to meet those guys in the middle, more like eleven twelfths.
      Suddenly the front door smashes open.
      Bill: Oh no, it’s Dave!
      Rich: He must have heard us bad-mouthing his Roth’s monologue lecture.
      Dave: Once is too often to consider doing something you shouldn’t.
      Bill: Thoreau?
      Rich: Lopez?
      Bill: Cooper? (Anderson)
      Dave checking his reflection in the window behind which the Talkeetna mountains rise white, silent, uninviting: Dede Spitz.
      Dave: She bought a book from me in Minneapolis. Yesterday. She was carrying your book, Bill, she thought I was you.
      Bill: We’re easily confused.
      Dave: I get that a lot.
      Bill: It comes with the territory.
      Rich: Yesterday!??
      Bill: Are you cold in those sandles?
      Dave: An Inuit craftsman is fashioning a pair of seal skin lined boots for me as we speak.. They’re guaranteed to be waterproof. Should be ready in half an hour. Can I borrow your snowshoes?
      Bill: They’ll sure go good with your raccoon hat. Here, take Phil’s.
      Rich: Thank you for not hurting us.
      Bill: Thank you for not lecturing.
      Bill: Jerky?
      Dave, eying the swirling snow and disappearing light beyond the window pane wet with condensation from the fire: Thanks.
      Phil: A thousand pardons.
      Dave: Nine hundred would have been enough.

  4. Rachael writes:

    I agree with Jessica: Right place at exactly the right time. I’m in yet another draft of revision on my memoir. Recent comments from readers have flagged “something missing.” I initially planned on a mosaic-type of memoir, scenes of vignettes strung together. But the exposition, the “what does this all mean?” is what’s missing. It’s time for me to move from straight chronology and shake things up a little. Thanks for the words of wisdom!

  5. Bill writes:

    There’s quite a wide continuum of nonfiction writing that rises to the level of the literary. Some of the greatest examples of literary memoir operate in the cinematic mode–scene after scene, growing and developing from one another, not a stitch of exposition, and leaving it the reader’s domain and prerogative to find the meanings, to sort things out, to analyze, and leaving it to the narrative moment for background information to emerge. This is the narrative essay: pure storytelling. The lyric essay is more like a big poem, and depends on image and language for its effects, also metaphor, in a direct way, but tells its stories, too, often eschewing chronology. The Montaignian essay is a discursive form, a great mind wandering from idea to idea in what Montaigne called a “conversation with the reader,” a man mining his mind: “Que sais-je,” as the medallion around his neck read. The contemporary personal essay makes use of all of the above, and more, in varying amounts depending on the writer. Some good writers aren’t particularly good at storytelling. Some terrific storytellers falter when it comes to exposition (which isn’t synonymous with narrative, but is the delivery of information and ideas separate from a place and time, whereas narrative begins in a place and time: “One day….”) Many are good at both, and a judicious mix can make for a dazzling essay. When I’m teaching I try to get the more expositional writers in the room to try some scene–just try it. And the more cinematic writer to at least consider some voiceover. A good writer’s stories become evidence for her arguments, showcase her ideas. A good writer’s exposition sets up his stories, not with generalizations and platitudes, not with the obvious observation, and not in the generic mode, but with surprising insight and helpful direction, instruction, even: here’s what I mean, and here’s how to read me. The academic essay elides the self, leans heavily on exposition, no place for stories. At the other end of the scale, fiction shows and doesn’t tell. When Philip Roth uses exposition, he is doing it in a character’s voice, and as part of a scene. It’d be voiceover in the movies. In his books, it’s part of the delineation of character. As for summary, it’s part of showing, just another element in the mix. An Alice Munro story can cover a whole life in 20 pages. A Stephen Dixon story can spend five pages on a moment. They’re both good. True, a person could weave analysis through a story, but if you’re making me dream your story, please don’t wake me up shouting what it’s about in the middle of the action!

    • Rich Chiappone writes:

      Thank you, Bill. I applaud David’s advice to mix it up, as you also say, of course. But the simple and none too appealing truth is that scene (conflict, or that filthiest of all writing workshop words: plot) is inherently more compelling. Humans seek closure. Tthe outcome of a situation (a scene with conflict) is uncertain. Even David (who was horrified one Sunday to find himself having dinner at my house –a house without a TV–set DURING THE NBA PLAYOFFS!) wouldn’t watch too many basketball games if he already knew which team won; or if instead of competing, they just dribbled around in circles thinking deep thoughts. This is why scenes are so much easier to write than exposition, and why popular novels are action-heavy and thought-light. So, as a teacher, sometimes it comes down to advising a student to do what she or he can most likely succeed doing. I’ll take good scenes over deadly authorial intrusions any day of the week.

      • Bill writes:

        Dirk Nowitski as the Mavs make a fast break, six-minute timeout (a new NBA rule–the expository timeout), the crowd silent, silent, hanging on his every word: “Growing up in Chermany, we had this term, schadenfreude, that at times it has shamed me to feel as I watch Miami and that fat giant lose their playoff berth. But shame was a part of German life, and fat giants, too, and I am nothing but not a product of a German worldview. As Goethe wrote…. “

  6. Shehla Anjum writes:

    Thank you so much for writing on this subject. I have been often told by people in my writing group that I need more scenes in my essays, and that I rely too much on “narrative.” I’m an older writer and feel that all showing and little telling makes for a dull essay, that sometime exposition, narrative and reflection add more depth to an essay that a scene would not. I recently had my first essay published in Creative Nonfiction, and one of my friends who critiqued it before I sent it to the magazine actually told me it had too much narrative/exposition and that I should rewrite it. Needless to say, I didn’t follow that advice and submitted it as I had written it.

    • Dave writes:

      Yes, that is the standard advice these days. Would have been too bad if Montaigne had taken it.

      • Shehla Anjum writes:

        Absolutely. I think younger readers/writers find Montaigne too staid and boring. All those paragraphs that can run more than a page, and, nary a scene or dialog. How awful.

  7. Jessica writes:

    This advice came at just the right time for me. I’ve been struggling with exposition and summary in my fiction, and in the personal narrative piece I’m working on now. My thesis advisor suggested I have more analysis of the ideas I’m grappling with woven throughout the scenes. Your suggestions above are double encouragement, and make so much sense.