It's Okay to Make a Scene
Novels and movies are typically made up of scenes: little stories or vignettes that progress the plot in some way. Perhaps it’s a glimpse into the protagonist’s character, the foreshadowing of a tricky situation, a skinny latté between friends or a phone call that sets off a rippling chain of events. The point is that something happens. However, scenes are more than the playthings of fiction writers; they’re “the building blocks of creative nonfiction” (Gutkind, 2012, p. 107).
Anna Elkins’ award-winning essay about her travels in Israel includes visits to thermal pools, a kibbutz and Roman ruins, but never reads like a travelogue. There’s peril, interpersonal encounters and deeper questions of life and meaning. She writes beautifully (e.g. “two contrails met in a calligraphy of white”), but another reason the story is so engaging is that it’s told almost entirely in scenes. If you have ten minutes to spare, it’s well worth reading Of Danger and Beauty. I count five major scenes. The first takes place in Tel Aviv where a missile is intercepted. The second involves Anna and her friend Tsach having a dip in the Dead Sea. Can you identify the other three?
Elkins also makes good use of dialogue to enliven her scenes. Cate Macabe provides a great list of tips for crafting realistic dialogue (e.g. handling dialect and avoiding information dumps). Also see my post on speech tags. However, using dialogue in nonfiction poses special problems. What do you do if you’re writing about a past event for which there is no audio or video recording? Won’t that involve making up some of the lines? If so, doesn’t that mean it’s no longer accurate?
According to Gutkind, it’s important to be “true to your story, true to your characters, true to yourself” (p. 30). Readers understand that you didn’t tape record that life-changing conversation with your mother twenty years ago. However, reconstructed dialogue should be authentic in its depiction of memories, the available facts and the manner of speech used by the people involved. In some cases you may be able to interview others to check their recollections, though people can remember the same events differently. Melanie Faith provides a great rule of thumb for recreated dialogue: “some compression or restructuring is fine as long as the general gist contains literal and/or emotional truth, but outright making up or deceiving to flatter the self is never okay and takes an essay from the realm of nonfiction to fiction”.
Even when you do have a recording of a conversation, you can’t just plonk the transcript on paper and expect it to grab your readers. Macabe notes that you still have to summarise, add dialogue tags or actions, cut filler words such as "um” and “ah”, and break it up with other relevant information. Remember it’s all about story. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
Can you recommend any nonfiction articles or books that make good use of scenes and/or dialogue? Do you have a perspective on ethical issues in reconstructing events and conversations? I’d be interested in your comments.
Elkins, A. Of Danger and Beauty. Retrieved from http://travelerstales.com/carpet/002852.shtml
Faith, M. Three Literary Tools for Crafting Creative Nonfiction. Retrieved from http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Three-Literary-Tools-for-Crafting-Creative-Nonfiction.html?soid=1101417136261&aid=iJaD41EFhcg#LETTER.BLOCK7
Gutkind, L. (2012). You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.
Macabe, C. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue. Retrieved from http://thisnewmountain.com/2013/04/12/writing-a-memoir-like-a-novel-dialogue/