The Scene’s the Thing

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!

Summary, Summary, All is Summary

I want one of these. Seriously. If you have one, this should be the one you're holding onto right now.

Last week, I gave a brief overview of scene and summary. This week, we’re going to delve a little deeper into just summary. Hold onto your hats. As I said in my last post, summary is basically just taking a long period of time and condensing it into a few sentences or less. It’s a very useful technique, but people tend to struggle with using too much of it, so I’m going to talk about when you should use it, and when you shouldn’t. Onto the summarizing…..

Unless it really advances the plot, we don't need to know what happens on the train ride.

Summary can be rather tricky in that it’s all telling, no showing. You’re describing to your reader the events that have happened or are going to happen without actively involving them. There’s no dialogue, no presently occurring action, just statement of fact. Sometimes, though, telling is a great and wonderful thing. If you need to “fast forward” through a large section of fictional time in which nothing of great value to the plot actually happens, you’re going to want to summarize everything. Instead of giving every detail about what George and Martha did on the boring 48 hour train ride home, you’ll probably sum it all up with something along the lines of “It had been a long trip home, completely uneventful and definitely very boring.” 48 hours have just been condensed into a single sentence, and you can jump right back into the action of what happens once they actually arrive home. Backstory can often be summarized, too: “She didn’t tell him about the time she dropped her mother’s wedding ring into the pond when she was four, or when she had accidentally broken her father’s favorite walking stick while playing with horse with it several years later. And she figured he really didn’t need to know about how she’d tripped over her own feet a week ago and completely decimated the giant vase of flowers that used to sit on the table in the front hallway.” You’ve just informed your reader that the protagonist is a klutz, has been for years, and has been involved in several minor accidents without actually having to show the occurrences taking place. The events are there, but you get the basic idea of them very quickly, without any action taking place in the present time of the story. It’s a great way to stick in little details like that without having to take up copious amounts of words in describing events that don’t really add much to the story in their entirety.

We want to "see" this, not just be told that it happened.

There are, however, occasions when summary should not be used at all. Important events should never be summarized, for example. If you’ve spent half the story building up romantic tension between the hero and heroine, the reader is going to want to fully experience the breaking of that tension. They’ll want the sensory details, dialogue, and action. How he grabbed her hand and pulled her so close that she could smell his cologne, or when she finally says “I love you, and I have since I saw you that day at the train station.” The reader wants to be involved in those sorts of moments, not shut out with a synopsis of what happens. The climax of a story should never be summarized, either. How disappointed would you be to get into a great, well written story with characters that you really connected to and a plot that kept you on the edge of your seat, only to reach the height of the tension and read “Once Frodo got to Mount Doom, he failed to destory the One Ring, and Gollum bit off his finger and then accidentally fell into the fire along with the Ring.” Disappointing, isn’t it? There’s no character development, no dramatic dialogue, no tense resolution to the story. It just…ends. “This is what happened, the end.” It’s really kind of boring, and no one wants to read that. We want Frodo’s speech when he decides not to destroy the Ring, we want to “see” Gollum biting off his finger, and we want to be so involved in action that we’re relieved and happy when Gollum falls off the precipice into the flames.

So, to “sum up,” summary is really awesome to have when you’re trying to get through a great deal of information or time that doesn’t have much to do with the actual plot, but should never ever be used to show important events and climaxes in the story. Use this tool wisely. Don’t be afraid to use it, but don’t overuse it either. Next week, we’ll go into detail about scene. Happy writing!

Technique: Scene vs. Summary

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!