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Writing Dramatic Scenes

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March 2010
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In writing a personal essay, memoir, travel writing, you must retell your personal experience.

To retell your story, you must recreate the scenes for the reader by using the techniques of creative nonfiction. The most important technique is “creating the dramatic scene.”

A dramatic scene is more than expressing your thoughts and emotions about an event or experience, or describing the setting/location. A dramatic scene is not expository writing or a summary of the events or experience. Both types of writing focus on “just the facts.”

Creating a dramatic scene in creative nonfiction involves using your memory, observation, and personal reflection to retell the facts in an interesting and compelling way. It also involves using dialogue, action, and details to capture the important events. Your goal is to present the facts as accurately as possible and to retell the story. Your goal is also to inform the reader and to entertain them.

This article will explain what is meant by the term “dramatic scene” and how to craft a dramatic scene when writing a personal essay, memoir, travel essay, and so forth.

Definition of Dramatic Scene

What is a dramatic scene? A dramatic scene is like a Hollywood film, which has a set, location, details, action, characters, and dialogue. According to Dinty Moore, the author of the Truth of the Matter; Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, when you write a personal essay, memoir, literary journalism, you must craft scenes and not write expositions or summaries. A scene includes the following elements:

  • Location/setting of the event or experience
  • Concrete and specific details that are sensory details
  • Action from characters who take participate in the story, event, or experience
  • Sense of the passage of time
  • Dialogue between characters to reveal something important about the character or the event or story.


Your goal is to make the experience come alive in the mind of your reader. Writing dramatic scenes is the way to recreate the experience.


Exposition or summary of an event:

This morning, I almost got into a fight with a stranger who attempted to run me over because of his careless driving.

Event based on scene:

This morning, while walking back from Tim Horton’s coffee shop, carrying my newspaper and cup of coffee, I almost got into a fight with a stranger who was driving a black Porsche. There was no sidewalk, so I had to walk home on the side of the road. Apparently, he didn’t like the fact that I was taking up the space where he intended to park. So rather than let me pass, he started to park as I was walking close to the curb. Attempting to park, he narrowly missed my feet by about 6 inches.

After he parked and climbed out of his car, I said, “You need to watch where you are going. You almost hit me with your car. There is no sidewalk, so I have to walk on the road. I have the right of way.”

He yelled, “Fuck off!”, and then walked up the street to get his morning fix of java, oblivious to how I felt or that he had done anything wrong.

I yelled back, “You are a rude person.”

I then continued to walk home. As I walked, I thought to myself: There is so much rudeness and a lack of civility in this big city of Toronto. And for a moment, I thought of going back to where he parked his Porsche, to wait for him, so that I could give him a piece of my mind. I thought of waiting for him, so that I could pour my cup of coffee on him. I thought of threatening him with bodily harm. I thought of calling the police. I thought of my mother who would tell me when I was a kid to “stay out of trouble.”

At some point during the walk home, my thoughts changed. I now felt relieved that the altercation had not escalated into something more serious or dangerous. I thanked myself for not reacting to my angry impulses.

Then I continued on my way, up the street, toward my home, enjoying the sunshine and mild spring day, one of the first since the end of the harsh, cold winter.

As I opened the front door to my basement apartment, I said to myself, “The black bears are out of their caves.”

How to Recreate the Scene

Before you recreate the scene, you need to remember what happened. Sometimes the event or experience happened recently. In this case, you can jot down the important details, action, and dialogue. Other times you will need to use your memory. You might also need to complete some research, such as reading a diary or personal journal”, visiting the place where the event took place, talking to friends or relatives who experienced the event. You won’t often remember every detail. But research and fact-checking will help you. You can also use the technique of  “emotional truth.” It means that if it “feels right to you” you can write about it.

A dramatic scene has a sense of time and place. Time can refer to clock time, the time of day, the season of the year, or the time it takes for an event to occur. Place refers to location, which can refer to your family home, travel destination, nature, and so on. Be sure to include the time and location where the event or experience took place. It gives your story context and makes your story real. For instance, In September 1972, I saw the most important hockey game and sporting event in my life from the auditorium of my high school…

A dramatic scene also includes important details and descriptions. Details are concrete and specific. Details are also  sensory images that appeal to the reader’s sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. Details make your story come alive. Example: Walking in the snow, the wind howling, the cold biting my face, I could see the trail to the road in the distance. I was hungry, exhausted, my body ached from the two hour cross country skiing in the woods, along the trail to the frozen lake, a place where I swam on during the warm, hot summer months of July and August. Now, it was January. I wanted to get home to cook a juicy, spicy pepper steak on the barbeque, drink a cold ale in front of the fire place, and relax on my lazy boy chair.

A dramatic scene includes the comments you make or the conversations between two or more people. A dramatic scene requires dialogue that reveals character or advances the narrative.

A dramatic scene includes action. You can write about your own behaviour other people’s behaviour. Your goal is to not include any action but action that is important or significant, action that is related to the event or events.

A scene can also include your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. For instance, as the events or experience takes place, you can tell the reader how your felt or what were thinking. After the experience, you can provide the reader with your own view point.

As a creative nonfiction writer, your goal is to recreate the story or experience by using the technique of “writing dramatic scenes.” It involves showing your reading and not telling them what happened. You can show your reader what happened by describing the details, setting, and action, and by restating important dialogue. Writing dramatic scenes results in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable storytelling.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to my blog.

Next, I will discuss point of view and voice as they apply to creative nonfiction.


1 Comment

  1. muskan says:


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