In this article I’ll demonstrate how a technique called “immediate scene” can breathe life into your family fiction story.
The writing approaches that I discuss in Write Your Family Story Part 4 – Details Details — simple narrative summary and detailed narrative summary—are both appropriate ways to tell a story. These techniques are most prominent in non-fiction writing.
Fiction writing incorporates narrative summary, too, but good fiction writing relies heavily on showing the interactions among the stories characters and their surroundings. And this showing is done most vividly through writing action scenes, which renowned novelist and playwright Sol Stein calls immediate scenes.
Immediate scenes show the action
Stein defines an immediate scene as something that includes abundant and vivid dialogue, thought and action. He calls narrative summary, in contrast, “a scene that is told, rather than shown,” and concludes that “every form of pleasurable writing benefits from conveying as much as possible before the eye, onstage rather than offstage.”
“An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable. That’s an important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate. Theatre, a truly durable art, consists almost entirely of immediate scenes. Just as every form of writing that is expected to be read with pleasure moves away from abstraction, every form of pleasurable writing benefits from conveying as much as possible before the eye, onstage rather than offstage.” ~ Stein on Writing¹
I wrote all four of my O’Shaughnessy Chronicle family fiction books using immediate scenes.
My mother wrote her memoir, From High on the Bluff, in simple narrative summary. In her memoir, she included lots of short snippets about events in her life but didn’t always elaborate on how she felt about them.
When I turned her memoir into fiction, I needed to add new details and emotion to draw readers into the story, and I needed to lengthen the story. If you have been following this series, you will recall that in Write Your Family Story Part 4: Details Details, I demonstrated detailed narrative summary by adding new information about what the sisters want to use the money for. Many details were added to the detailed narrative summary, but that doesn’t make it an immediate scene. The dialogue, physical interactions, thoughts, monologues, and actions (called beats), e.g., “He threw the spade down,” all of that occurring as if in front of the reader in a manner that could be filmed is what makes it an immediate scene.
Shown first, below, is mother’s very short, Simple Narrative Summary. Next, I use immediate scenes to recreate her story. This is an excerpt from my soon to be published novel Puppet on a String. A snippet of this experience was also included in Giddyap Tin Lizzie.
Simple Narrative Summary – From High on the Bluff
What to notice in the narrative summary
Notice that the reader does not have to consider the different characters. The conclusion or takeaway message is presented clearly to the reader.
“Sometimes we went out in the country with our Great-Uncle Dick to plant pumpkin seeds and potatoes. He gave us twenty-five cents a day, and a lunch that his daughter Emma cooked and put up. As I said before, Emma was one of the world’s best cooks; so it wasn’t too hard a job for us, given the rewards. But one day we got tired, and Alice said, ‘Let’s put the rest of the seeds under this stump and say we didn’t have any left.’ So we did – and it worked. Alice always came up with these bright ideas, and I thought she was some kind of god, so I did everything she told me to do.”
In the above example the narrator (my mother) simply tells the story. It describes something that happened, not something that is happening. My mother’s conclusion about her sister’s influence wouldn’t need to be written in the longer immediate scene.
I’ll now retell Mother’s account of her and Ruby planting sprouts, but I’ll write it as an immediate scene. I’ll include the elements that Stein calls for: abundant and vivid dialogue, thought, and action. It all happens in front of you, the reader. It’s visible, and therefore it could be filmed.
Immediate Scene – From Puppet on a String
What to notice in the immediate scene
In this example, I have turned this same experience into an immediate scene by relying on dialogue and actions. The kinds of things that show the reader what is happening.
Notice how much I add to bring this fictional version to life. The expanded story, about two sisters from a poor depression era family, who desperately wanted to buy their deserving older sister a dress, is full of family drama and emotion.
- Notice the use of dialogue to communicate the emotions of the girls.
- Notice how I have included the thoughts of the main character.
- Notice how often we can see the action someone is taking “She filled her pail,” “Ruby grabbed my arm.”
- Notice how dialogue and action are interspersed.
- Notice that there is no need for a conclusion to explain feelings or relationships.
Adding details is valuable for narrative summary and immediate scenes. But it’s the dialogue, monologue, thoughts, and action that makes it an immediate scene. It all happens in front of the reader. It’s not someone telling a story.
I remember Sharon racing through the kitchen in tears. “Sharon, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?”
She didn’t stop or reply; instead, she rushed up the back stairs.
Our kitchen was big and everything was in place. Mother saw to that, but Sharon helped lots. Sharon deserved a new dress, I thought. She worked hard for the family. And Dad had promised her that dress, but when Earnest O’Doul said he needed medicine for his daughter who had the croup, Dad said he’d wait until next month for the money owed him. During these Depression years few people had money to spend on their cars, and Dad didn’t press too hard when he knew they were desperate.
I followed Sharon to her bedroom. I seldom saw my cheerful sister cry. “What’s the matter? Please tell me. Maybe I can help.”
“Oh, dear Catherine,” Sharon said, “you can’t help, not unless you have a treasure secreted away someplace.”
“Is it the dress?”
“I’ve not had a new dress since confirmation. I so wanted one for the school’s Spring Ball. My confirmation dress is way too small. I’ve grown this last year—at the top, you know.”
“Mama’ll alter it. She’s good at that. It’ll almost be new.”
“Not to me it won’t,” Sharon said as she broke into tears once more. The next morning before church, I told Ruby about the dress, about the broken promise. Ruby didn’t respond at first: she paced our bedroom with her head down in thought. “There must be something we can do.”
I knew that Sharon would help Ruby or me if we had a problem. Why, Sharon saved my skin many a time. I decided to pray about it during the minister’s minute of silence.
When two days later, Cousin Joe said he wanted our help planting potatoes and offered a penny a sprout, I knew my prayers were answered. This time I’d help Sharon. My father’s cousin Joe owned two acres on the edge of town in which he planted potatoes. Usually he hired our older cousins to help, but this year, their father said he needed them at home. And it was a late spring, so Cousin Joe wanted the sprouts planted soon.
Mother said that we could miss one day of school, but no more. If we didn’t finish on Wednesday, we’d have to work after school on Thursday and Friday. So we’d have to work fast. Sharon’s ball was Saturday night.
The day was hot (over ninety degrees, a record temperature for so early in the season), but I was eager and used to work, so I was certain we could earn enough to buy the dress. We’d never planted that many potatoes, but after careful calculation, Ruby said we could earn fifty cents an hour between us, maybe more. If we worked ten hours, we could earn five dollars, more than we’d ever earned before.
The flat, lightly tilled field stretched out before us. Cousin Joe marked the rows with long strands of binder twine. He pulled a hay wagon loaded with bushel baskets to the fence line and left an eight-gallon milk can of cold water in the wagon’s shade. The baskets were nearly overflowing with sprouts.
We each grabbed a pail and filled it with sprouts. I started up one row, Ruby another. At first, we worked fast, and I calculated pennies as I dug, set the sprout, and covered it with cool, loose soil. The first hour, we made our fifty cents, each burying twenty-five sprouts. But the farther we went up the field, the longer it took to run back and fill our pails. And the higher the sun got in the sky, the more often we returned for a cold drink of water. Soon we spent half of our time running, and our production dipped sharply.
We dug faster, but that tired us more quickly, so we worked slower. And to make matters worse, the now-hard soil, baked by the sun, made digging more difficult. By noon, I was worn to a frazzle, and my hopes for a five-dollar payday waned. For a while I sat eating my lunch in silence, too hot and tired to talk. Then, after ten minutes, I rolled over to face Ruby. “Maybe we should be satisfied with less. We’ll never get them all planted. I’m beat.”
“We’ll get that five dollars one way or another,” Ruby said. “I’ll figure it out, just you see.”
“We don’t have to finish today,” I said. “Cousin Joe said we have all week.”
“We’ll finish today.” Ruby took a swallow from the dipper and flung the remaining water at my feet. “We’ll finish today or my name’s not Ruby O’Shaughnessy. I promised Carrie that I’d go to the town hall concert after school tomorrow and to our class party Friday night, and I don’t plan to miss them. We’ll finish these potatoes today.”
I knew that Ruby seldom failed when she set her mind to it. I was sure we’d finish planting today, but I didn’t know how. After lunch and a short rest, we attacked the firmly packed soil with renewed vigor, and again, we made fifty cents the first hour. Ruby said, “I told you we’d finish.”
But soon it became clear that Ruby hadn’t accounted for the afternoon sun. My blouse and slacks hung heavier with each trip I made up the field. Again, I slowed as I recognized the futility of our effort. We’d never earn enough money today.
Ruby called to me. “Don’t be so lazy. There’s a ton of potatoes left in the wagon.” She filled her pail and raced up the row, but I lagged behind.
We worked a while longer but continued to lose ground toward our five dollar payday. I didn’t mind work. It was a part of my young life, but the heat became too much. We’d never get enough money to help Sharon. Even under Ruby’s stern glare, I slowed to a halt. Finally, I crawled under the wagon and rested in the shade. My back ached and my fingers throbbed with pain.
“I thought you cared for Sharon,” Ruby shouted as she worked on, but after another half an hour, she joined me under the wagon. “Wow, that sun’s hot,” she said as she took a mouthful of lukewarm water from the dipper. “I’ve never been so tired.”
Ruby sat but remained quiet. I could see that she was deep in thought, so I turned away and laid my head on the ground, certain the sun had won the day. But I’d underestimated Ruby. After a while, Ruby stood and said, “Fill your pail.” I jerked upright. “What?”
“I said, fill your pail.”
“Ruby, I can’t plant another potato. I’ll come back alone tomorrow if I must, but I’ll die if I have to plant more today. I’ll never get out of bed in the morning.”
“Just do as I say,” Ruby said as she slammed sprouts into her bucket. “Fill your pail.”
I eased off the ground and began to drop potato sprouts into my pail, one at a time. “I can’t do this, Ruby. You’ll kill me. You’ll not have a sister to love you anymore. No one to boss you around.” As if I ever did the bossing.
“Oh, shut up, you silly. You’ll survive, and we’ll get our five dollars. I have a plan.”
I dropped a sprout onto the bucket’s rim, and, as it bounced to the ground, I glared at Ruby. I knew about Ruby’s plans, and most of them got me into trouble. “What are you thinking?”
“Just fill your pail and follow me.”
Ruby grabbed her full pail and headed across the field, past the rows marked by twine to the far side, where trees and brambles thrived in the sunlight. At first I hesitated, but then I slowly followed. What did my scheming sister have in mind?
Ruby walked into the woods but stopped by a downed tree. “When we planted the first row today, I noticed this hollow trunk. Do you understand my plan now, sis?”
A hollow log. How could that help? “What are you thinking?”
Ruby didn’t answer. She walked to the empty trunk, took a handful of sprouts from her pail, and shoved them inside. “We’ll plant these potatoes today even if it’s in an old log. Maybe they’ll grow like mushrooms. They grow mushrooms in logs, you know.”
At first, I stood open-mouthed. “We can’t do that. It’s cheating. It’s dishonest.” I took a step toward the wagon but turned back. “I couldn’t cheat Cousin Joe. Ruby, I’m ashamed of you.”
Ruby grabbed my arm with one hand while she wrenched my pail away with the other. “We worked hard today, Cathy. Cousin Joe would agree with that.” She pushed more sprouts into the log. “The working conditions were more severe than we bargained for. You’ve heard Dad say that wages increase when conditions are harsh.” She pushed another handful into the cavity. “We deserve more under these conditions, and this is a way of getting more. You’ve read how much steel workers make because they spend all day in front of those hot blast furnaces. It really is fair, sis.”
I hadn’t thought about it that way. Maybe it did make sense, but if it was fair, we should tell Cousin Joe. When I suggested that to Ruby, she was emphatic. “Oh, no! He might not see it that way. He doesn’t have the education or experience with labor that Dad has. We’d best just do it and say nothing. It’s okay, Cathy. It really is fair.”
I wasn’t so sure. I thought that maybe we should tell Dad, but I didn’t mention that to Ruby. “I don’t know. You’re probably right about working conditions, but it doesn’t seem fair to not plant Cousin Joe’s sprouts. He’ll not get all the potatoes he expects when he digs them this fall.”
“That’s a long time from now. Besides, Cousin Joe really likes Sharon. He’d want to help her get a dress.”
Yes, it’s true, he was fond of Sharon. But I knew we’d not be knocking on Cousin Joe’s door anytime soon telling about his contribution to Sharon’s dress fund. I should have known better, but Ruby said it was okay.
After reading this account of Catherine and Ruby cheating while planting their cousin’s spuds, I predict that you and other readers will draw similar conclusions about each girl’s personality.
That’s the power of writing immediate scenes. If you include abundant examples of a characteristic you’ll lead readers to the conclusions you want them to draw. And it’ll produce a more powerful emotional effect when they’ve reached their own conclusion without being told.
Photo by Cheryl Winn-Boujnida on Unsplash
To wrap up the Write Your Family Story series we’ll sum up what we have learned and look at some additional resources to help get YOUR project off the ground.
Stein on Writing A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies