Post 34

Author: Nola Published: about 5 years ago
Tags: nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, scenes Category: Writing tips

Creative Nonfiction Part 2: Making 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. However, scenes are more than the playthings of fiction writers; they’re ‘the building blocks of creative nonfiction’ (Gutkind, 2012b, p. 107).

So what distinguishes a scene from other types of prose? According to Gutkind (2012a), something has to happen, no matter how small. Holly Lisle agrees, but also notes the importance of change. A piece of writing is a scene ‘when something changes’.

Now this is great in theory, but how does it work in practice? Consider the following:

Byron Bay is the most easterly point in Australia and the Cape Byron lighthouse attracts thousands of tourists each year. There are five kilometres of walking tracks around Cape Byron that will take you from the lighthouse through forests and down to the beach.

Is that a scene? Well, let’s apply the criteria used by Gutkind and Lisle. Does something happen or change? I’d say ‘No’. It’s merely a piece of description, and probably not very good description at that. Now consider the following:

The sun was already low in the sky before we decided to tackle the path from the Cape Byron lighthouse down to Wategos Beach. We’d only been walking for a couple of minutes when Brad pointed towards a pod of dolphins, cresting the waves near Julian Rocks. I moved to get a better view and lost my footing on the gravel surface. I careened down the embankment and slammed into a tree ten metres from the path. Brad tried to reach me, but the bank was too slippery. ‘Can you move?’ he shouted. I tried to flex my ankle, but a jolt of pain shot through my leg. ‘I think I’ve broken it.’ ‘I’ll go get help,’ he said before disappearing around a bend. As night closed in, I hoped he wouldn’t be long.

That example does constitute a scene. Something happens (i.e. two people go for a walk) and a change signals the end of the passage (i.e. one of the people is hurt and the other goes for help). That then sets up the next scene where Brad hopefully comes back with some burly emergency volunteers.

Gutkind (2012a) suggests reading nonfiction articles or books with a yellow highlighter in hand and marking all of the scenes. If the writer has done his or her job, the manuscript should be predominantly yellow. Why not try that test with Anna Elkins’ award-winning essay Of Danger and Beauty. How many scenes do you count? I’ll return to her essay next week when I look at dialogue in creative nonfiction. In the meantime, why not try crafting a scene out of one of your personal experiences. I’d be interested in reading the results.

(N.B. The first paragraph and a couple of ideas from this blog also appeared in my post on Australasian Christian Writers a couple of weeks ago)


Elkins, A. Of Danger and Beauty. Retrieved from the Wanderlust and Lipstick website.

Gutkind, L. (2012a). The yellow test. The New York Times, August 27, 2012. Retrieved from

Gutkind, L. (2012b). 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.

Lisle, H. Scene-Creation Workshop: Writing Scenes that Move your Story Forward. Retrieved from

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Posted about 5 years ago by Lynne Stringer

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