We all tend to use too little scene in creative nonfiction. We especially forget the possibilities of representative scene. Even when we’re reporting a typical rather than specific event, use of scenic elements . . . conveys a sense of character and situation far more effectively than summary does.
— Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
I’ve just started reading Tell It Slant and early on I’m pondering, When do you use exposition and when do you use scene?
When writing newspaper features — and to some extent freelance magazine features — I often felt limited to exposition. At times, when I had the space, I would beef a feature up with mini scenes, usually with short descriptive passages of place or a brief — very brief — description of a person. I rarely had dialogue. Much of what I wrote was expository or quickly dashed-off narrative summary, often out of necessity.
I was envious of writers I read at larger papers, or at alternative weeklies, who seemed to be given the space and time to write detailed, compelling features, alive with scenes, dialogue, characterization. And envied even more New Yorker writers like John McPhee (talk about detail) or Susan Orlean.
And yet, with my recent forays into creative nonfiction I find myself slipping into exposition and narrative summary more than scene. Often I’ll start out with scenes and then slip for pages into exposition. When I read and revise, I see the exposition, and in the back of my mind I think I should cut it, revise it, build a scene, but then, at the same time, the exposition seems to fit so well with the essay. And I think of some the essays and booklength works of nonfiction by writers such as Larry McMurtry or the wonderfully lyrical Diane Ackerman and those writers rely heavily on mixes of scene and exposition.
And I wonder, When should a scene be used, and when should you use exposition?