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Nov 25, 2012

NaNoWriMo Tip #25: Quick and Dirty Guide to Scene vs Summary


These are my personal tips for NaNoWriMo. You know the drill. Take only what works.

Show Don’t Tell. Show Don’t Tell. Show Don’t Tell. Yada, yada, yada…

If you’ve heard that so often you want shove the words into a piñata and beat it with a stick, I don’t blame you. Also, what the heck does it mean? I’ve seen it explained poorly WAY too many times.

For instance, I’ve seen the advice, that if you say, “John was furious,” that’s Telling. Whereas if you write, “John clenched his fists,” that Showing. So you should always talk about John’s fists and never say flat out, “John was furious.”

Er, not necessarily.

Ok, yes, technically, telling the reader that John was furious is telling, and showing his clenched fists is showing, at the sentence level. If your writing is full of simplistic sentences like this, then it’s worth looking into other ways to show emotion through body language and action. Make each sentence as strong as it can be. Strike cliché from your writing wherever you find it.

But don’t confuse the old adage Show Don’t Tell for turning your characters into drama-queens who are constantly stomping their feet, clenching their fists and flashing their eyes. Sometimes, a little telling goes along way: “John was furious. He smiled politely, gesturing his mother-in-law into the drawing room. ‘Yes, please stay to dinner.’”

Context is everything.

If you are writing a rich outline / rough draft of your novel, particularly if you are trying to finish it in a month—meaning you want to scratch out your ideas in the white heat of inspiration and worry about refining the writing later, this level of Show Don’t Tell doesn’t even matter. Later you can go back over the paragraph and change, “John was furious,” to, “John clenched his fists,” easily enough if you want to. Sentence level improvements are not that hard, and can be a real pleasure.

What you cannot change so easily, and what you should take the time to get right even in the draft (if you can) is choosing when to write in Scene and when to write in Summary. Changing Scene to Summary or vice versa can involve restructuring you whole novel, and it’s seldom a pleasure. It usually feels like being stuffed into a piñata and hit with a stick.

Scene is another way of saying, “Show,” and Summary is another way of saying, “Tell,” except at a higher level of story, at the level of paragraphs, scenes and whole chapters. Both are necessary. Newbie writers, however, often write Summary when they should write Scene, and write Scene when they should write Summary.

Analysis of Scene vs Summary in a Sample Novel

As an example, I’ll refer (with permission) to a manuscript I was looking at for a friend of mine. She began her book with a terrific opening paragraph, but then, in a classic newbie mistake, veered into First Person Summary. (I’m not going to quote directly, but will indicate the style for each paragraph.) I’ll also label which ones are Scene and which are Summary.

Paragraph 1: [Summary] A three day storm had swept over the city like a jealous bitch, leaving debris to trip up the unwary all over the streets. [More description]

Paragraph 2: [Summary] My name is Alice Munroe, and I’m a 34 year old housewife. I’m not fat, though I could stand to lose ten pounds. My shoulder length blonde hair is starting to show a few gray hairs. … [blah blah blah]… [a couple paragraphs of self-description]

Paragraphs 3-5: [Summary] I grew up… [blah blah blah]… [a couple paragraphs of backstory]

Paragraphs 6-7: [Summary] I married …[blah blah blah]… [more paragraphs of backstory]

Paragraphs 8-9: [Summary] I’m pretty sure my husband is cheating on me because …[blah blah blah]… [more paragraphs of backstory]

Paragraph 10: [Scene]  This afternoon, I waited outside my husband’s office. As soon as I saw his red Chevy pull out, I peeled out of the parking lot and followed him all the way to the Cheery Buster Motel…

Every paragraph until 10 was Summary. Now, you might think I advised this writer to cut all of them, but no. I advised her to cut all but one of them. The first paragraph, although it was Summary, although it was Description and although it didn’t introduce a character or a conflict directly, was a great paragraph. It established us in a time and place, it was dynamic description, and importantly, it foreshadowed the conflict to come (the jealous bitch was about to hit her husband like a storm and leave their marriage in debris). Some Summary is worth keeping.

Paragraphs 2-9, however, stopped the action cold to give us a boring and static description of the woman, her past, her marriage, etc., and completely sucked any tension or mystery out of the next scene (when the woman followed her husband’s car). Basically, the author told us what the protaganist was going to do [Summary], she did it [Scene], and then (in the second half of the chapter), the author slipped back into Summary to recap what had just happened.

Repetition like this is useful in business writing (this author had a long non-fiction resume), where it’s safe to assume your readers are dolts with little interest in the subject, but it’s deadly in fiction. Fiction readers are geniuses and should be respected as such by authors.

Wally Reading vs. Reading Wally.

Is it Scene or Summary?

Unfortunately, there are no Hard and Fast rules about when to use Scene vs Summary. But here’s a Quick and Dirty guide to Scene vs Summary. Please don’t whine that you’ve seen good writers break these conventions. Of course you have. Good writers are like politicians. They know how to break rules and get away with it.

Short flashbacks                                             
Summarized dialogue (no quotes; He told us that…)             
Habitual events (Usually he would…)
Covers long periods of time

Immediate action
Long flashbacks
Dialogue (quotes; he said, she said)
Unique events
Unfolds in “real” time, beat by beat

Examples of Scene vs Summary

Summary: Over the years, she had collected a dozen different pieces of diverse tea sets from garage sales.
Scene: She sipped from a white tea cup decorated with roses and set it down on a dark blue Limoges plate fringed with gold loops.

Summary: Paragraph or two describing the trip over the mountains
Scene: Two characters have a dialogue as they pick their way over the trail

Summary: The boss gave me the pink slip that morning, in the afternoon Jenny asked for a divorce and told me I couldn’t sleep in ‘her’ house anymore, and by evening I’d ended up punching some guy in a bar. At least I had a place to sleep that night after all; the cot in the jail cell wasn’t as hard as it looked.
Scene: “We value your contributions as an employee,” said Mr. Schmuck. “Don’t come back on Monday.” [Etc., followed by individual scenes with Jenny, the bar brawl and the arrest.]

As you can see, these actually work best if you mix and match them. You can describe the woman sipping from the tea cup and also mention how the pieces were collected over the years. You can show the characters chatting on the trail and summarize the rest of the journey over the mountains.

Final Quick and Dirty Questions to Ask

Here’s a final question to ask yourself if trying to decide to write Scene or Summary?

Is this a pivotal turning point or important conflict in the story?
If yes, write Scene. If no, write Summary.

Is this merely something the characters have to do to get to the next part of the story or is it tangential to the main plot?
If yes, write Summary. If no, write Scene.

Suppose your novel is complete or nearly complete and as you’re looking back over it, you realize there are a number of Summaries that should be Scenes and a couple of Scenes that could be deleted and re-condensed as a paragraph or two of Summary. That’s fine. These changes can also be made in revision.  

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