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Finding the Scenes in a Story




sign showing the numeral oneThe essence of storytelling is the specific scene, the “power of one-ness”:

At ONE moment,
in ONE place,
ONE character
performed ONE action

Of course, there are parts of stories that are best summarized:

“Over the next couple days, she tried again and again…”

These summaries have the virtue of taking us quickly from one important scene to the next, without bogging us down in the details.

The trick in storytelling is to get the right balance: which parts of your story are important enough to deserve a full scene, and which parts should be summarized as briefly as possible.

In order to get that balance, though, you first need to know what the scenes are!

Needing the Scene

When you are first telling a story, you may need to tell much of it in “full scene” mode – at least until you begin to understand the story’s organizing principle, namely, what is most important about it for you.

At this point, the tendency to summarize can hide the juicy details that will make your story memorable.

Interestingly, the same problem arises during the interviewing process, too. If you are trying to elicit stories from someone else, you may need to probe behind the summaries for the power of scenes.

How to Elicit Scenes – not just summaries

Some interviewees will tell full scenes without any prompting. But most often, interviewees will tend to summarize scenes rather than flesh them out.

For example, I once interviewed a survivor of a drunk-driving incident. Let’s call the woman Kathy (not her real name). My goal was to help Kathy tell her story of how the drunk driver affected her life.

Kathy responded to my initial questions about what happened to her by saying simply, “A drunk driver ran into me. That’s how I ended up in this wheelchair.”

Notice how her answer is narrative in form but lacks specifics about the collision. There is no specific place or time, and the collision itself is summarized by the words “ran into me.”

Prodding for Details

As an elicitor of stories, you may need to prod several times to get the details that will make this scene come alive and be meaningful for listeners.

In Kathy’s case, I asked her, “Say more about what happened.”

She responded, “He rear-ended me. I wasn’t even moving.”

I said, “Wow! Where were you when this happened?”

She said, “I was on the highway by my house. I had just driven 20 miles and was about to turn into the road I lived on then. I was about 3 blocks from home.”

I said, “You were just driving along and he rear-ended you?”

She said, “No, I was sitting at the light. It was dark so I was being very careful. If I had run that red light, I’d still be able to walk.”

The Pay-Off

To get the full details of the scene, I had to ask several more questions. Eventually I learned that she had been sitting in her stopped car, waiting for the light to turn, and that there were two open lanes next to her in which any rational driver could have passed her.

With the full scene revealed, I felt her helplessness and the incident’s unpredictability. To me, those are the qualities that made me remember this scene ever since.

How to elicit scenes

When you hear your interviewee refer to an episode that might fit your goals, encourage him or her to tell the full scene. Don’t worry about the presence of irrelevant details at this point. Instead, focus on getting all the details that might be relevant. Ask questions like “What happened next?”, “What were you doing before that?”, and “Where were you at this point?”

Once you have identified a scene that seems powerful, persist until you feel you can fully imagine it.

There are several other potential obstacles in the process of eliciting powerful stories, and many other useful techniques to aid in the process. But the key issues are identifying powerful scenes and then eliciting the details that make them memorable. If you succeed with those issues, you’ll be well on your way to success.

(The above article is adapted from the white paper, “Seven obstacles that ordinary people face when telling their stories to the world – and how to overcome them.” Read on to learn how to download it free.)


After my work with Witness to Innocence (you can read about that at I realized how much I care about helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary experiences to the world.

This process involves three main phases:

1. Eliciting Powerful Stories
2. Shaping And Performing Effective Stories
3. Adapting To Changing Contexts

I have made available a free, 15-page download, “Seven obstacles that ordinary people face when telling their stories to the world – and how to overcome them.”

You can download it free here:

I look forward to getting to know people who share my interest in this work!

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