Off Campus Writers' Workshop - OCWW

Amy Butcher - The Single-Scene Narrative Essay: Standalone Powerhouse or Book-length Framework

  • December 15, 2022
  • 9:30 AM - 12:00 PM
  • REMOTE

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Single-scene stories, according to Margaret Bishop in her fantastic anthology Single Scene Short Stories, are short literary works that take place in only one physical scene, one geographical coordinate, and/or one window of time; the resulting prose is remarkably tight, trim, and urgent, as the full thrust and momentum of the work—and the resulting emotional resonance—must be achieved without transporting the reader from one place to another and with very little voice-over summary or exposition. While writers who practice this form may use brief instances of flashback or backstory, foreshadowing or forecasting to provide slight context to the unfolding scene, the writer (and reader) must remain within the framework of that one particular narrative moment.

Many writers develop single-scene stories to publish as standalone works, but there is also tremendous value in practicing the art of the single-scene story as a way of constructing a framework for a book-length project or as a means of further developing one’s ability to “show v. tell,” or create immersive prose that drops a reader right into that narrative moment as opposed to simply telling the reader about it from a distance. Essayist and nonfiction writers, especially, are wise to use the single-scene form to further enhance the narrative qualities of their work, as the vast majority of the genre’s bestsellers are drafted primarily in narrative scene.

In this craft talk, we’ll read some powerful examples of the form, discuss how and why they work, and generate the framework for several of our own standalone works. This session will be useful for writers of all genres, though particular emphasis will be placed on the power of drafting nonfiction via single-scene stories.

Amy Butcher is an award-winning essayist and author of Mothertrucker,  (Little A, 2021), a book that interrogates the realities of female fear, abusive relationships, and America’s quiet epidemic of intimate partner violence set against the geography of remote northern Alaska. The book earned critical praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, CBS News, The Chicago Review of Books, The Oxford Review of Books, Booklist, and others. The Wall Street Journal writes that Mothertrucker is “a rattling good story” that is “shot through with poignant insights.” Publisher’s Weeklywrites that the book is “tender and gripping,” writing, “[Mothertrucker] explores myriad issues with nuance and grace, including Indigenous rights, violence against women, religious hypocrisy, and environmental concerns.” Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a searching and deeply empathetic memoir,” writing, “[Mothertrucker] is a sobering reflection on verbal and psychological abuse [that] honors the healing power of female friendship and questions the nature of divinity beyond its constricting patriarchal manifestations.” Excerpts of Mothertrucker also won an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, with judges calling the book “well researched,” “very well-written,” and “a positive antidote to the trauma of violence against women.” Her first book, Visiting Hours (Blue Rider Press/Penguin-Random House, 2015), earned starred reviews and praise from The New York Times Sunday Review of Books, NPR, The Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and others. She is the Director of Creative Writing and an Associate Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University and teaches annually with the Iowa Writing Festival and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Sitka, Alaska.

Photo credit: Adam Stiffler

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