Writing True Stories: When to Use Scenes in Your Narrative Nonfiction Writing

Scenes are the cinema of narrative nonfiction. Scenes lift a story off the page and create a sense of movement. Instead of recounting the information to the reader in exposition form – like a still photograph – scenes incorporate action, conflict, suspense and dialogue to move the story forward.  

Writing a scene that engages the senses is far more difficult than simply summarizing the action and spoon-feeding it to the reader. Good narrative nonfiction provides emotional drama, not just explanation. Narrative nonfiction writers learn how to successfully incorporate literary techniques into their work.

What a Scene Does

  • Advances the story
  • Presents what the character(s) want or need
  • Includes an obstacle or opposing force (conflict)
  • Emotionally involves the reader in the decision or event

How to Decide When to Create a Scene

1. For Major Plot Points or Events in The Story
When you decided to leave your spouse after 23 years.
The moment the CEO is caught for embezzling.

2. To Convey Conflict Between Characters
When the detective interviews the main murder suspect.
When the soldiers are captured by opposing forces.

3. When the Stakes are High or Strong Emotions are Evoked
When the crew must convince the captain to head back to shore before the perfect storm cripples the ship.

Consider these questions:

  • What is the problem or obstacle the primary character needs to overcome?
  • What is the conflict?
  • What is the purpose of the scene?
  • Does the scene advance the story? How?

A Narrative Nonfiction Scene

This scene, from The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald, is rich with suspense, conflict, emotion and high stakes: 

Herndon paused, staring into Wilson’s eyes.  Seconds passed, seeming like minutes.  The moment grew unnatural.  Wilson said nothing.  

Finally, Herndon broke the tension. “There are going to be indictments. People will be going to jail. Right now, you have the opportunity to make a decision, and we would like you to make the right decision.”

This was Wilson’s chance to admit his mistakes, Herndon said, a chance to someday be able to look his grandchildren in the eye and say that he had done the right thing by confessing and helping the government.

“It’s tough, it’s hard, but it will be tougher if you don’t cooperate,” Herndon said. “We’re giving you the chance to make a difficult decision, probably the most difficult you’ve ever made. But it begins now by being honest about your activities at ADM.

Suddenly Wilson interrupted.

“I’m surprised you didn’t go through the company attorneys,” he said. “I know the antitrust laws, and I haven’t done anything wrong. And don’t think I don’t recognize the pressure tactics you’re using.”

Wilson stood up. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he repeated. “And this interview is over.”