Less Rules, More Tools – Scene and Summary

In my previous (warm, witty, unforgettable) blog post, I compared two models for analyzing narrative: the classic rising-stakes model taught in nearly every secondary school, and a more flexible system outlined by Robin D. Laws in Hamlet’s Hit Points. I argued (brilliantly, of course) that besides the issue of accuracy, on which we have reason to look askance at the classic model, Laws’ is just simply more useful for creators due to its flexibility. One way I could have phrased it, although I didn’t, was that Laws’ system asks more “what would be the results of this as our next step?” instead of “what is it that our next step must do so that it will match the model?”

Let’s see if we can take the same approach to replace another restrictive rule we were all taught: “Show, don’t tell.” Can we transform it from a rigid “DO this and DON’T do that” into the more flexible “what happens if I do this, or do that?” I think we can: let’s say hello to two new tools in our toolbox, scene and summary.

Scene is writing with sensory detail, and vivid descriptions. It’s the events of the fictional world as described by someone observing them unfold. Frequently we get our view of the events through the eyes of a viewpoint character; when we do, and we get their thoughts on the events as well, those thoughts are scene writing. Verbatim dialogue, and inner monologue as well, is scene writing. If you ask yourself “Is this a level of detail that makes me feel like the person sharing the detail was there?” and the answer is yes, it’s probably scene writing. Scene writing is (keep this point in mind even if it’s not wholly clear; it’s important and we’ll return to it later) the evidence that we sift through, in order to reach a conclusion.

So what is scene good for, and when is it the right tool to use? “An awful lot” and “very often,” respectively. Scene writing is highly involving, good at capturing the reader’s attention. It’s no exaggeration to say that for many readers, good scene writing is what they read for; they want to step outside the confines of their own life and feel what it’s like to live the life of a master spy on a mission, or a princess caught in royal intrigue, or a space voyager exploring new stars. They want to know the sights, sounds and smells of a grand coronation banquet, the thoughts that race through your mind when you realize your cover’s been blown deep in hostile territory, the mixture of elation and fear that comes descending through the atmosphere of an unknown planet. They want scene writing.

(Scene writing is also important for what screenwriters call “pipe”: exposition that you want to reveal to the audience without being obvious about its importance. We’ll come back to that in just a bit.)

Summary is writing that leaves out detail in order to take a higher-level view; as the name suggests, it’s simply summarizing instead of detailing the covered events. If scene writing is a close-up with the camera, summary writing is the long shot, the wide shot, that lets you take in the bigger picture. How much bigger? That depends upon how much detail you’re willing to leave out. Years, cities, miles, millennia, empires, galaxies – all handled in a sentence or two, if you so choose. We said that scene writing was the evidence that led us to a conclusion; summary writing is the conclusion.

We know what scene writing is good for, so what’s summary writing good for? All sorts of things; exposition in particular becomes much easier with summary writing.

Backstory: I’d moved east three years before, looking for a new start after both a career and a long-term relationship ended messily within weeks of each other.

Transitions: We boarded the bus in Massachusetts and stepped off the next morning in Virginia, looking and smelling worse for wear.

Repetitive events: All seven eyewitnesses agreed that the gunman had been tall and wore a dark coat, but on everything else they were vague, or uncertain, or contradicted each other.

Recapping past scenes: I filled Chester in on everything Rudy and I had been through in the last twenty-four hours, including the “mud puddle” and the interview with the State Police at the roadblock.

So now that we’ve looked at the choice between scene and summary, here comes the really good news: most of the time, you don’t even have to choose. That’s because it’s very easy to blend the two and get the best of both – in fact, it may be easier to blend them than to keep them apart. They’re not really two separate tools, but the two ends of a spectrum, and with practice you can glide effortlessly back and forth between those extremes to get the best of all worlds.

You can dip briefly into summary in the middle of scene: “Oh, so you think you had a tough day?” I quickly filled Chester in on everything Rudy and I had been through in the last twenty-four hours, including every disgusting detail of the “mud puddle” and the grilling at the roadblock. “You stand on the shoulder of I–93 at three in the morning wearing nothing but twenty-three pounds of topsoil explaining yourself to two suspicious staties; then and only then you get to tell me what a tough time you’ve had.”

Or liven up summary with a dash of scene: The Council met every day, beginning from sun-up and going to well after sun-down. They turned away no one, not the lowliest hedge-wizard or village wise woman, who claimed some insight into the problem (“If we could but harness that astrologer’s jawbone for magic,” growled Rabanath Wind-Warder after one particularly grueling session, “as the millers harness the treading of their oxen to grind flour, we’d have enough to relight the Great Beacon and more to spare.”) Yet by the turn of winter, the messenger birds to the royal court still carried no glad tidings of progress.

You may remember we mentioned the importance of scene writing for exposition, but we waited to talk about it until we had also covered summary writing and the blending of the two. The reason we did so is that blending scene with summary is frequently much more effective than pure scene writing for exposition.

Why? Because the best kind of exposition is the kind that you don’t even notice as exposition. When exposition is done clumsily, it’s called “telegraphing”: the king suddenly starts talking about the long-lost prince who hasn’t been seen for twenty years, since he was three, and everyone can guess immediately who our twenty-three-year-old supposedly-the-son-of-shepherds protagonist really is. We don’t want to telegraph our plotting – especially if we’re writing in a genre like mystery, where it’s crucial to give the audience a fair look at the evidence but still keep them guessing.

Scene writing is very involving; it draws people in, it signals “something important’s happening here, something you’ll want a close look at.” That’s a mixture of what we want, and what we don’t: we want to give the audience that close look without calling undue attention to doing so. An excellent way to do so is to embed the important details with scene writing, inside passages of summary writing:

All seven eyewitnesses agreed that the gunman had been tall and wore a dark coat, but on everything else they were vague, or uncertain, or contradicted each other. Or even themselves. “I think he had a moustache?” said the balding convenience store clerk, the one in the bank who’d been closest to the gunman. “Or maybe it was a beard, like a thin trimmed beard just along his jawline?” He sniffed, blinked watery eyes, and grabbed a tissue from the dispenser on Cotter’s desk just in time to stop up a violent sneeze. “It might have been a fuzzy scarf, actually,” he mumbled from behind the tissue.

Cotter hoped his own eyes starting to water was just due to the power of suggestion, and not because he’d already caught something from the witness. Despite an intense desire to get himself away from the sneezing, blowing man and wrapped around a nice glass of vitamin C, he took the rest of the witness report, such as it was, and sent the clerk off to hopefully recover from the cold before he dealt with the public again.

Now, in fact, those two paragraphs have given Cotter (and the audience) an important clue. The clerk isn’t suffering from a cold; he’s reacting to an allergen that was on the bank robber’s clothes, which will later help the detective figure out where the robber came from before he entered the bank. We were able to play fair with the audience by putting the clue in front of them, without giving away the fact that it was important.

It wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if we’d tried to do it in all scene writing, as then we’d have had to work out every line of dialogue for seven fairly fruitless conversations. And trying to use pure summary writing would have resulted in something like this: All seven eyewitnesses agreed that the gunman had been tall and wore a dark coat, but on everything else they were vague, or uncertain, or contradicted each other. One eyewitness, who sneezed frequently and whose eyes watered a lot, had even contradicted himself. That’s not wonderful prose, admittedly, but even if it was, clever readers would still say “Wait, the author’s cutting out a lot of detail in that summarized description; why is the fact that the eyewitness sneezed a lot important enough to be left in?” and would quickly conclude that it must be a clue.

So far, we’ve been trying to stay away from absolutes in the handling of scene and summary – no ALWAYS do this, no NEVER do that. However, there’s one particular usage choice that shows up frequently in inexperienced writers’ work, and almost without exception, it’s a bad choice. In just a few sentences, it can annoy or even infuriate a reader, and cause them to toss the offending work on a “don’t bother finishing” pile. It’s best to know this trap and avoid it.

So what is this trap, into which so many unwittingly fall? Let’s explain with an analogy. Suppose that you are offered a tour of a museum – an art museum, or perhaps a memorabilia museum devoted to your favorite hobby. You’re all excited about the chance to see all those exhibits – until you discover that your “tour” consists of simply being led through the halls by a tour guide who won’t let you look at the exhibits yourself, but simply tells you what you would be looking at, if you were allowed to look for yourself.

Sound frustrating? That’s only half the analogy. Now just imagine how enraging it would be if you took such a tour, and in addition to all the above, the tour guide decided for you what your opinions on all the exhibits were. “Here, let me fill out your comment card for you. You think the Greek statuary exhibit is magnificent, you think the modern art collection is the finest in the country, you think we should win awards for our Renaissance art gallery. There we go, that’s what your opinions are; did you have something to say just now?”

The first scenario is an analogy for what a reader feels when they look forward to vicarious experience brought to life with detailed scene writing but instead they only get summary writing. That’s disappointing. The second scenario, though, is even worse: it’s when the author tries with summary writing to dictate what the reader thinks and feels about the author’s creations.

Take a look at the following paragraph, intended to introduce a book’s protagonist: Jake Hansell was one of the most acclaimed UFOlogists in the world. He was always being interviewed on TV shows and on radio; the hosts loved to have him on because he was so witty and charming. At a remarkably young age, he’d become financially secure from the sales of his books on alien visitations, and everyone respected his very convincing arguments about the presence of aliens on Earth.

We said earlier that scene writing presents the evidence, and summary writing presents the conclusion. The summary writing in the paragraph above doesn’t just present conclusions, it dictates them. It’s as if the author is instructing the reader, “You will find Jake Hansell witty and charming! You will find his arguments about aliens convincing, and will respect him because of those convincing arguments!” Sorry, but it’s the reader who’s going to decide whether they like Mr. Hansell or not, respect him or not, et cetera. Trying to dictate these things to them will only turn them off, and quite likely lead them to stop reading.

Some writers may be very confused at this point. “Are you sure it’s a bad idea to do this? I could swear I’ve seen it done by writers who have good track records and large audiences; how can it be such a bad thing to do?” The cause of the confusion is that the practice we’ve been warning about – using summary writing to impose on the reader the judgments of the author – looks very similar on the surface to a technique that’s both legitimate and useful. Look what happens when just one sentence is added to our paragraph:

Susan stared at the tall figure talking and gesturing animatedly on the other side of the crowd. Jake Hansell was one of the most acclaimed UFOlogists in the world. He was always being interviewed on TV shows and on radio; the hosts loved to have him on because he was so witty and charming. At a remarkably young age, he’d become financially secure from the sales of his books on alien visitations, and everyone respected his very convincing arguments about the presence of aliens on Earth.

That sentence changes the context of all those blanket statements about Jake Hansell, from the judgments of the author to the judgments of the character Susan. The paragraph may still be written in the third person, but including in it the act of Susan viewing Jake Hansell signals to the reader that Susan’s viewpoint is where all these judgments are coming from. Readers may not buy into Jake Hansell being so charming and convincing, but they don’t have to; they just have to buy that Susan thinks so.

(Am I suggesting that you should add “have secondary characters think the conclusions I want the audience to adopt” to your toolbox as a quick-fix technique? Sorry, but no. You can use the reactions of secondary characters to nudge readers towards seeing things in a particular light, but the real solution is honing your skills so that your scene writing can do the heavy lifting of persuading the readers – because sooner or later, it will have to.)

There’s a reason why “Show, don’t tell” has lasted so long as a writer’s maxim: if you absolutely, absolutely had to choose just one to master and use, you’d want to pick showing (scene) rather than telling (summary.) Yet why should we set our sights so low, settling for a toolbox with just one tool? We can instead master both scene and summary, every point on the spectrum between those two extremes, and every combination that partakes of both sides. There is a world of possibilities out there, and each writer deserves a toolbox that opens up those possibilities instead of putting them behind a label of “don’t.”

About jdcburnhil

Author of "Nightbird Descends," available from Smashwords and other fine e-book retailers.
This entry was posted in Fiction, How-to (Fiction) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Less Rules, More Tools – Scene and Summary

  1. theblackrooster says:

    Great post. I hadn’t thought about scenes and summaries as evidence and conclusion presenters before.

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