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Summary vs. Scene

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Mon Mar 28, 2011 8:17 am
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Teague says...

Summary vs. Scene: The Ultimate Showdown
Why it’s More Important than Showing vs. Telling

All of us in fiction know that age-old battle of showing versus telling. When writing, it’s generally a good idea to illustrate your point through your use of language rather than just to state it outright. For example, saying “Jimmy and Joan were in love,” you want to be more detailed with specific examples and emotions so your reader feels like they’re in love too. There are a multitude of ways to go about doing this, but we’re not here to talk about that.

We’re here to talk about the granddaddy of the showing versus telling issue – summary versus scene. Like with showing versus telling, there are several instances where one is better than the other, and neither can be labeled exclusively as “bad”. Now, let’s start with the basics – what summary and scene are in the first place. In simple terms, a summary is what it sounds like, detailing a relatively long period of time in a short span. Scene, on the other hand, is the opposite – it details at length something that occurs over a short span of time.

Summary is at its most useful when used for exposition, also its most common purpose. It can also give information, background, motive, and an endless number of other possibilities. Let’s say you’re writing a story about Jim’s day at work, where he got fired a little after lunch time. Whether in the beginning or more toward the end of the story, depending on how you structure it, eventually you’ll likely want to detail how Jim got into this sticky situation – like his drive to work, or getting dressed that morning, or the business meeting before lunch. This is best done via summary, because no one really gives a hoot to watch Jim brush his teeth or eat breakfast. It’s a good time to hit that fast-forward button and watch those particular images flash by at warp speed.

The downside of summary, like the downside of fast-forwarding through a movie, is that it’s not interesting to sit through. While summary is crucial to almost every story, the real action happens in scene. That’s where you want to put your reader, if you’re going to use their time wisely. Put them directly in the action to create scenes. For example, if Jim’s boss fired him after lunch, you don’t just want to say that the boss came by, fired Jim, causing Jim to go home. Let your reader feel how Jim felt – was he crushed? Elated? Indifferent? Put us in his shoes. This doesn’t mean you have to write in first person; you just have to inject some sort of emotion into the scene. Emotion is the currency of fiction – if you don’t pay up to your readers, they’re not going to give you the service of reading your work.

Easy enough, right? Yup, that part’s pretty simple. The tough part is transitioning from scene to summary and back again. Now, there is no easy way to teach someone how to do that, so I’m going to give you a couple of easy examples that you can play with at your leisure and figure out what’ll work best for your own work on a case-by-case basis. One easy illustration of shifting from summary to scene is to look at your own life story. You can fast-forward through most of it, but inevitably you’ll come to an event that had some sort of significant impact, and there you’ll want to slow down and slip into scene. Important events should always be scene, while the set-up for them should always be summary – this, of course, is a general rule and can be broken, but you’ve gotta play by the rules before you can break them. Another way, rather than building up via fast-forward and then hitting ply, is to stop summarizing when some element of conflict is introduced. For example, maybe you’re summarizing Jim coming back to his desk from lunch when he sees his boss walking towards his cubicle with a pink slip in hand. That point, when Jim sees his boss, is a good place to slow down and switch to scene mode. A lot of times, these transitions will feel natural (as they’re a natural part of storytelling, see back to that example of looking at an autobiography), and you might not even notice them.

The most important thing to know about scene and summary is that, ultimately, scene is much more crucial. You can have stories that are purely scene (particularly common of short stories), stories that are a mixture of the two (like every novel ever written), but you can never have a story that is pure summary. Well, you can, it’ll just be supremely boring and no one will ever want to read it. A lot of novice writers (and even intermediate and advanced ones!) fall into the trap of too much summary – which is fine for first drafts, but to get to that perfect draft, you’re going to want to, with the help of others, go over your story with a fine-toothed comb and look for places you should have written scene instead of summary, or vice versa.

All of fiction hinges on this idea, and if you pick up any book and start looking for scene versus summary, you’ll likely see a lot more of scene. In fact, looking through books and short stories is a great way to learn how to handle these elements. Just remember to have patience, because everything starts with a crummy first draft. If you could see the early drafts from any writer on your bookshelf, you’d laugh and feel a lot better about yourself. Just keep reading to learn by example, and don’t be afraid to hijack your favourite author’s style to see what you can learn from them – after all, in the words of Pablo Picasso, good artists imitate, great artists steal.

Happy writing!

Hat tip to Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway for help in defining these terms.
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Fri Jun 10, 2011 3:56 am
Jenthura says...

That's an excellent guide. I'm just dying to write an all-summary story now, but it'd probably fail (after which I would look at it and say, "Huh, she was right!"

To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it.
— Olin Miller