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Scene & Summary: Mastering When to Use Which

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Writers regularly need both scene and summary to tell a great story, but sometimes it can be difficult to discern when to use which, for best effect. Occasionally when editing another’s work, I find the writer made what really should have been summaries into scenes, and what really should have been scenes, into summaries.

This can weaken any story. Just imagine what The Hunger Games would have been like if Suzanne Collins summarized the high points of the Games—the cornucopia battle, the tracker jackers, or the mutts at the end. Then consider how slow and boring the story would be if she wrote a scene for every time Katniss went to bed or woke up and ate breakfast while in the Capitol. A high-stakes, fast-paced story would have turned into a drag—and would have been rejected before Effie could say “Primrose Everdeen.”

Writers run into this problem for several reasons:

  • They can’t yet tell the difference between scene and summary
  • They can’t yet discern what the story’s major turning points are
  • They feel too intimidated to write what needs to happen in a scene
  • They don’t know how to write a strong scene
  • They don’t know how to write a strong summary

Let’s address each of these.

What’s the Difference Between Scene and Summary?

How can you know when to use which when you don’t really know what each is?

Here are the key features of scenes and summaries to help you develop a better eye for them.

Scene:

A scene will happen in real time. The audience will “watch” the characters move across the setting, interact, and speak, as if it is all taking place in the real world.

The characters will be acting within a specific location. They may be sitting at a kitchen table, or on an airplane, or venturing into a forest. Often (though not always) when a scene ends and a new scene begins, the location will have changed. (Alternatively, the story may have jumped forward or backward in time.)

Scenes are “shown” more than “told” to the audience. This means what happens is dramatized. We don’t tell the audience “Matt was angry for the whole dinner.” We show he’s angry through his behavior. He may make a passive-aggressive comment, complain his meat is undercooked, or, if he’s really angry, throw his drink at his girlfriend.

Scenes will be mostly concrete. Because a scene is dramatized, it will more likely appeal to our senses and the physical world and experience.

Summary:

A summary happens over condensed time, not real time. A sentence may span a day, a week, a month, a year. Summaries may talk about recurring events over a period of time, within one paragraph. They may relay past—or even future—events within a brief moment.

The characters or locations may change swiftly, or in some cases, may not even be present. The text may guide the reader through different places, people, or time frames with ease.

Summaries use more “telling” than “showing.” This is because what is happening isn’t in real time. This gives summary a stronger, guiding, narrative hand. Rather than experiencing the passage like the character, it’s more like the audience is being guided by a storyteller.

Because summaries use more telling and can move swiftly from one thing to another, they will be more abstract. They will convey ideas and concepts, rather than recreate specific experiences.

To illustrate the differences, check out these two examples from Ender’s Game.

Scene Example:

(Note: Because scenes often take place over pages, this is just part of a scene.)

Anderson palmed the locks that kept students out of the officers’ quarters; finally they came to where Graff had taken root on a swivel chair bolted to the steel floor. His belly spilled over both armrests now, even when he sat upright. . . . Time and tension were not being kind to the administrator of the Battle School.

“Seven days since your first battle, Ender,” said Graff.

Ender did not reply.

“And you’ve won seven battles, once a day.”

Ender nodded.

“Your scores are unusually high, too.”

Ender blinked.

“To what, commander, do you attribute your remarkable success?”

“You gave me an army that does whatever I can think for it to do.”

Summary Example:

Ender put them through the obstacle course twice, then split them into rotations on the tramp, the mat, and the bench. . . . He didn’t need to worry about exhaustion. They were in good shape, light and agile, and above all excited about the battle to come. A few of them spontaneously began to wrestle—the gym, instead of being tedious, was suddenly fun. . . . At 0640 he had them dress out. He talked to the toon leaders and their seconds while they dressed. At 0650 he made them all lie down on the mats and relax. Then, at 0656, he ordered them up and they jogged along the corridor to the battleroom.

Worth noting is that it is possible to mix scene and summary. For example, you may have a bit of summary within a scene that briefly provides background information. Or, you may write a long passage of summary that has short moments of dramatization. No need to get too strict on keeping summary out of scene or vice versa—but it is important to know the difference between them.

What Should be Scene and What Should be Summary?

A good rule of thumb is, the more important the moment, the more likely it needs to be rendered as a scene.

What Should be Scene

Scenes take place in real time, concretely, which means they are almost always more impactful than summary. Scenes immerse the audience powerfully into the story. We want to dramatize the most important parts for best effect.

If you are familiar with story structure, you can use it as a guide. Major turning points should almost unequivocally be scenes:

The inciting incident should be a scene.

The climax should be a scene.

The midpoint should be a scene.

And the high points in each act should be a scene.

And the pinch points should be scenes.

Anything the story has been building and building and building up to, should probably be a scene.

If you are working with multiple plotlines, all of the major events of the primary plotline should probably be a scene. The less important the plotline, the more you can get away with summarizing important events or even having those events happen “off page.”

Another rule of thumb is that if the moment significantly progresses the character arc, plot, or theme, it needs to be a scene.

Finally, most genres will have what professional editor Shawn Coyne (creator of The Story Grid) calls “obligatory scenes.” These are scenes that the audience expects to see in the story when they pick up the book. For example, in a murder mystery, we expect to have a scene where the body is discovered. In a romance, we expect to have a first kiss scene.

What Should be Summary

On the other side of the spectrum, we have summary. Not everything that happens in a story needs to be dramatized in a full-blown scene. The narrative would become long, flat, and boring.

Use summary when the audience needs to know the fact that something happened, but it’s not important for them to experience it.

For example, we may need to know the fact that Henry slept terribly last night because it will affect his test-taking skills in the next scene, but we don’t really need to share his experience of that. It may not be interesting enough to make into a scene, and if we try, it’d likely be dull. How much conflict can you really get out of that scenario?

Summary is also useful when you need to cover a broad length of time in a short amount of space, or when you need to talk about recurring events. If your characters have to go by sea to a new land, and the plot isn’t really about the boat ride, then you’ll be better off summarizing the voyage. And similarly—rather than rendering the fact that Macy is late to work every day, scene after scene, it will probably be more efficient to summarize that, since it’s a recurring issue.

Additionally, summary can work well to transition from one scene to another—particularly when something noteworthy happened between those scenes, but isn’t worth dramatizing.

Finally, summary can be important in providing the reader with context. It may be used to set up a situation or provide background information so the audience can follow what is happening in a plot accurately. For example, summary may be used to briefly explain an ongoing feud between two families, so that the reader will understand why Yolanda and her siblings are sabotaging the Greens’ block party.

What if I Don’t Know How to Write this Part into a Scene?

Sometimes authors avoid writing what should be a scene, into a scene because they feel intimidated or underqualified. They may feel like they can’t write a good action scene or first kiss scene, so instead they just summarize or leave what happened off the page. Or perhaps they need to write a scene from the point of view of a surgeon, but feel clueless about surgeries.

Usually, this doesn’t give you a pass to turn what should be a pivotal scene, into a summary.

And often when a writer does this, it feels like cheating.

If this is a key turning point, it should probably be a scene.

There are a few ways to address this.

First and foremost, do your research so you do feel equipped to handle the scene. Study how other writers have handled it. Interview anyone you need to. And after you write the scene, have others more qualified read over it and give you feedback.

If the information and resources you need are literally unavailable (which, with the internet, is rare these days), learn what you can and work with what you have. While it’s not ideal, on some occasions on some scenes, you can bluff some of it. But this is only merited when the information exists but can’t be obtained. The audience likely won’t have the information either, so if you handle it well, they won’t know the difference.

Finally, and this is iffy too, you can sometimes work around sticky scenarios like this by sinking deeper into the character’s viewpoint. What is he thinking and feeling during this situation? Depending on the story, that may actually be more effective. Perhaps his internal experience of this action scene is much more important than the physical experience.

How Do I Write a Strong Scene?

Other times scenes are a problem simply because the writer doesn’t know how to write a strong scene.

Almost any given scene should follow basic story structure: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. It’s just that they work on a smaller scale than the whole story.

Beyond the basics, you can find other helpful approaches to scene structure. One of the most famous comes from Dwight V. Swain who breaks this small structural unit into two parts:

Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster

Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

Editor Shawn Coyne also builds on the basic structure with these parts:

Inciting Incident

Progressive Complication

Crisis

Climax

Resolution

You can easily research either approach online. You can also get more help with scenes from David Farland’s writing tip series on scenes.

How Do I Write a Strong Summary?

In the writing community, we focus a lot on scenes and “showing,” so it can be difficult to learn how to write powerful summaries.

Some of the best advice I can give on writing strong summary is to “borrow” elements of “showing” and scene—find ways to weave in appeals to the senses, even though it’s summary.

For example:

Henry slept terribly that night. The room felt hot and his skin stuck to the sheets. Around midnight, a dog’s incessant barking drifted in through his open window, followed by the scent of a skunk. Whenever he did fall asleep, his dreams were riddled with his professor frowning and shaking her head as she graded his test. By the time he showed up to class, he was convinced he would fail.

If you need to write a long passage of summary, my other best advice is to pick a topic or topics to use as a sort of “theme” to weave through the summary. This helps “glue together” everything you need to convey to the audience. So, if I needed to summarize a voyage to another land, I may choose to focus on the wind or weather and thread that through the passage.

There are other techniques, but I think I will cover those another time.

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About September C. Fawkes:

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years, with nearly seven of those years under David Farland. September has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. She also runs an award-winning writing tip blog at SeptemberCFawkes.com (subscribe to get a free copy of her booklet Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists) and serves as a writing coach on Writers Helping Writers. When not editing and instructing, she’s penning her own stories. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.

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