Incident and Phase

The outer and inner journeys of our lives are filled with experiences that do much to shape who we are. Often those experiences arise from specific events, something that happens at a particular time and place. Other times, the experience might span a period of days, weeks, or even months. This poses a challenge when we are writing a story—how do we handle time?

James Moffett, an American teacher and writing theorist, offered a helpful distinction between an “incident” and a “phase.” An incident is a specific occurrence in the past “that took place only once, on a certain day or mostly on one day.”  A phase, on the other hand, covers a period of life, perhaps even a year in length.

Our lives are made up of many important incidents: e.g. attending our first day at school, meeting a special friend, going on a first date, graduating from high-school or university, interviewing for a job, winning an important competition, being in an accident, engaging in a heated argument, falling ill, suffering the sudden death of a loved one, experiencing a life-changing insight. We remember such events in considerable detail, and we might describe them as a scene, one that has action, some form of conflict, and is set in a particular time and place.

The process becomes more complex when we wish to describe an experience that spans a longer time. We may think of how education has shaped our lives and want to describe not only our first day at school, but significant events in our progression through the grades and how our academic interests emerge and then culminate in graduation. We may recall a sequence of romantic events: first date, going steady, nervously making a proposal, and then after much preparation enjoying the wedding day. If we have been unfortunate, we may remember an accident, the hospitalization that followed, the therapy and slow recovery.  In each of these recollections, we are describing a phase and it may be composed with multiple scenes, tied together with summaries that indicate the progression of time and possible changes in place as well as sequels that reflect our feelings and thoughts.

As you think about your life and plan to write about important experiences, it is helpful to consider whether you will be describing an incident (a Scene) or a phase (Scenes, Summaries, and possibly Sequels).

Scene Writing Guidelines

Sample Scene 1

Sample Scene 2

Sample Scene 3

Showing and Telling

Incident and Phase