This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.
Scenes vs. Summaries
Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.
But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites. The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.
I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).
In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story. Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).
Scenes increase tension in fiction.
Summaries provide context.
Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example. You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.
In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.
In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene. Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.
You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension. The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.
If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor. There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.* So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.
We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.
The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content. There, I said it! Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.
The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward. It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward. So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?
First, let’s look at a famous summary:
All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–
I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course. This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place. He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.
The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.
THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.
A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary. Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.
The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension. That’s the task of the middle of the scene. Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.
So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?
- The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
- Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.
That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.
Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant. Normally this is a mistake. Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know. One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.
However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.
For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after. The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.” You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.
What does that have to do with summary?
Summary is for context, right? We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas. Instead we get the following:
Westley didn’t reach his destination. His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–
“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.
–she went into her room and shut the door. For days she neither slept nor ate.
“I will never love again,” said she.
We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.
The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene. I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story. If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.
Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:
Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!
That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.” The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.
Scene vs. Summary Redux
I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set. One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.
Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel. How much context do you need? Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?
A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.
One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in. Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene? Is it scattered throughout? When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader? Is backstory spelled out in scenes? Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?
I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques. I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.
You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”
Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why. Why Pulp Fiction? Why Memento? Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does? And how can you set that up?
*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.
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