Professor Gaumer, my Creative Writing teacher. A very interesting man.

“You can have a story without summary in it, but you can’t have a story without scene,” my Creative Writing professor told me during my junior year at college. It’s true, really. I can’t think of a single novel or short story that I’ve read or written that hasn’t utilized the concept of scene. I’ve read and even written some works without summary (it’s hard, but manageable), but it’s impossible to completely leave out scene. Therefore, today we’ll wrap up our discussion of scene and summary by talking about the concept of scene itself: what it is, how it works, and a few tips on when to not use it.

Two weeks ago, we defined scene as taking a short amount of fictional time and expanding it, filling it with details. A scene contains the present action and the dialogue. In writing parlance, summary is the “telling” of what happened, but scene is the showing. This is where you let your readers experience what’s going on in that exact moment in time, storywise. In a scene, you want the readers to be completely immersed in the events, not viewing them as outsiders who aren’t privy to the specifics of it. The scene’s the thing, as Shakespeare might have said if he was composing a play about Creative Writing (hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

One of my literary heroes.

So, characteristics of a scene: since you’re showing the event, this is where you’re going to use dialogue and sensory details to let the reader get involved with what’s going on in this relatively short period of fictional time. If the protagonist spills a cup of coffee on her husband, you’re probably going to give the husband’s verbal response, describe the sight of the dark liquid spreading across his immaculate white shirt, the protagonist’s horror at her clumsiness, etc. Those sorts of details make the scene come alive. We “see” the coffee spilling, “hear” the husband’s response, visualize the liquid staining his shirt, and sympathize with the protagonist’s embarrassment, because most of us have done something similar at some point in our lives. The details are what get the reader involved in the story. They utilize the 5 senses in a way that engages us, connects us to the story. The dialogue gets the story moving, provides character exposition, and allows us to get inside the heads of the dramatis personae. You can’t have sensory details or dialogue in summary; characters don’t speak and the author doesn’t describe things. That’s why scene is so important and necessary to a story and why you can’t have fiction without it. Without scene, all you have is a summary, like a synopsis on the dust jacket of a book or in a critic’s review. No one wants to read that, it’s boring. We want to experience the story, not just be told what happened.

If the plot isn't advanced by what happens on the park bench, summarize it.

Ok, so, what to avoid when using scene: first of all, don’t try to make your entire story consist of a scene, unless that story takes place over the space of a few minutes, no more than an hour (and even that is stretching it). It’s almost impossible to use scene in a story covering a long period of time, because it wearies the reader and bogs down the story. Using scene that way means you have to give details of every single event that happens in the entire time frame of the story, and we don’t want to read that. We don’t need to know everything Jake sees while sitting on the bench in the park for 3 hours. If nothing relevant to the plot happens in those 3 hours, summarize it. Even if a particularly witty piece of dialogue happens that you’re very fond of, cut it if it doesn’t move the plot along. Scene is great, but too much of it all at once makes a reader tired. On the other hand, don’t under use scene. It’s a very powerful tool, and yes, excess of it drags a story down, but it’s vital to the life of your writing. I’ve seen several aspiring writers try to avoid detail and dialogue in their works, so they sprinkle it very lightly in the story. It doesn’t work! It just gives the reader a taste of what’s going on in the story, and never really lets them connect to it. You WANT them to be involved, you want them to experience the story for themselves, especially during important revelations or turning points. Let the reader hear, see, taste, feel, and smell what’s happening. Otherwise, you’re cheating them out of what they’ve been waiting for and what they want in the story. Show, don’t tell.

Well, that wraps up this series on scene and summary. Hopefully it’s been of help to you in your writing. These two tools are very useful for any aspiring writer, so I hope you’ve learned how to use them in a way that will enhance your work, not drag it down. Scene and summary are vitally important….use wisely. Happy writing!

4 thoughts on “The Scene’s the Thing

  1. This is interesting. I never had a creative writing course. Lots and lots of other bubbles of knowledge, however. Considering I’ve been freelancing for a couple of years now, I think I might just dive in the deep end. Best Regards,

  2. I think Tolkien managed to prove that you CAN have a story without scene in the Silmarillion. I can’t think of any real scenes in there. Of course, it ended up reading like a history book, which is what a story composed entirely of summary should read like. In fact, really, that’s what history books are: summary of the story of our history.

  3. There are a few scenes actually scattered through the Silmarillion. The story of Beren and Luthien contains a scene, for example, because there’s dialogue in it.

  4. Hmm, I guess that’s a good point, but the Silmarillion could have still been itself without them, just slightly different. Those scenes are the few breaks from the history-form writing.

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