Course Syllabus

Scene & Summary

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Complete Syllabus

In this class we’ll focus on two of the most important, and misused, elements in memoir: scene and summary. Both are essential to the memoir, but often writers confuse the two or rely on one at the expense of the other. We'll also study how reflection fits into the memoir mix, as well as spend a week on how best to delve into flashbacks and flash forwards. In these five weeks we’ll examine these key techniques—taking a close look at how each works and learning how to best balance the two on the page. We’ll study the basics but also look into more advanced strategies, such as how to use “nano-scenes” within summary to keep the storyline vivid, and the role of general time versus specific time.

Analyzing passages of nonfiction writing of published authors will help us use scene and summary more intentionally in our own writing. In addition, each week participants will submit a passage of writing that reflects that week’s focus, and the final submission will be a longer work that includes both scene and summary (such as a chapter or section of a memoir, or essay). This can come from a work in progress, or be something new.

Participants will receive personal feedback on their work from the instructor and feedback from other class members, and there will be substantial time for revision in the last week. 

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • written lectures and a selection of readings
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor

Some weeks also include:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (up to 4,000 words)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Focusing on Summary
We’ll begin by defining and examining summary and its panoramic view of memory and events. While it’s a useful technique, too much can slow down and even stall out a memoir. This first week will focus on the optimal ways to use summary so that it propels the memoir forward in interesting and satisfying ways.

Week 2: Focusing on Scene
This week we will jump into the writing process with a close look at the powers of detail, description, dialogue and character in making a scene come alive. We’ll talk about how to “put the reader there” by looking at scenes from a cinematic perspective. We’ll also look at the merits of flashback and “flash forward” scenes.

Week 3: Integrating Scene and Summary
Memoirs often deal exclusively with the past, and sometimes the hardest decision is choosing when to write a scene, and when to write summary. Knowing how to find the best rhythm and balance for your memoir is essential, but how can we do this? What’s most important to the story? When does it pay to spend extra time on a particular scene? When is it best to compress a span of time into summary? When are flashbacks useful? During this week we’ll consider how best to handle these questions by examining several strategies.

Week 4: Time Travel–Flashbacks & Flash Forwards
This week we’ll continue looking at integrating scene and summary by focusing on two terrific techniques: flashback and “flash forward” scenes. We’ll study examples that use these to best effect, heightening suspense and adding rich context.

Week 5: Revision
Revision is an essential part of the writing process and the time when a work can move from good to great. During this week we'll discuss strategies for revising the final submissions.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page, or contact the Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]