A story without scene and summary is just a blank page.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to take a good look at two technical elements of storycraft: scene and summary. Both of these elements are important tools for a writer to have and utilize, but it would rather difficult to go over both in much detail in the space of just one post. For purposes of today’s post, then, we’ll start by defining what both of these writing elements are, and I’ll provide some examples to help you understand the difference between them.

Let’s start with the easier of the two to define: summary. Most people know what summary is, and pretty much everyone uses summary in at least one of their stories. Most people use it in every story, actually. A concise definition of summary as it relates to creative writing is basically this: summary takes a large event or series of events and condenses it down to a short description of what happened. Example:

“This morning, I got up, got ready for school, ate breakfast, and then left to catch the bus.”

In that one sentence, you’ve been given the basic events of an entire morning. It glosses over what happened, giving you the bare minimum of details for you to understand what’s been happening. It’s telling, not showing. You know the narrator got ready for school, but you don’t know what his/her morning routine consists of, what clothes they decided to wear, or whether or not he/she brushed their teeth. You know exactly what happened, but none of the sensory details that fill in the gaps of the events, or even any dialogue. 2-3 hours of occurences have been summarized for you just like that, in one sentence.

Scene, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of summary. Scene takes a relatively short occurrence and expands it, filling it with details. Everyone uses scenes in their work, of course, but not everyone realizes that that’s what they’re doing. The concept is a little hard to completely understand for some people, so I’ll provide an example:

This image is copyrighted by Alan Reaver, and can be found on his website along with his other works.

“I stared at my alarm clock groggily. ‘How can it be 7 am already?’ I grumbled to myself. ‘I really don’t want to get out of bed right now. It’s too warm and comfortable right here.’ I snuggled deeper into the blankets, trying to ignore the golden rays of sunlight that streamed in through the cracks in the blinds and turned my covers bright orange. I was on the point of stubbornly drifting off to sleep again, when I suddenly sat bolt upright. ‘Oh, darn it. I have a math exam in first period,’ I moaned, sliding out of bed and running my hands through the horrible black mess of hair. ‘That’ll take forever to untangle…'”

See the difference? Just waking up and getting out of bed takes several sentences. There’s concrete details (the narrator’s black hair, the sunlight streaming in, etc.), dialogue/internal monologue, and sensory perceptions. The writer has chosen to take an event that’s maybe a minute long, and cover it in an entire paragraph. He or she sees this event as important, so they’ve made it detailed and exciting, making sure the reader focuses on it and remembers it. Short event, long description.

Don’t worry if it takes you a while to get the definitions down. Someone had to explain scene to me 3 or 4 times before it finally sank in. Next week, we’ll talk about summary’s importance in narrative craft, as well as when to use it…and when you should avoid it at all costs. Happy writing!


3 thoughts on “Technique: Scene vs. Summary

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