Scene and summary are the key building blocks of any novel. Some novelists devote more of their page count to scenes. Other writers use fewer scenes and more summary. Sometimes, publishers want writers to cut a book’s length, and writers are forced to compress moments in the tale when they might have wanted to let the clock tick in real time. There are many ways to tell a story. What you emphasize and what you skim over is up to you, but don’t let your decision be accidental. Make conscious decisions about what to put in scene and what to put in summary.
Let’s get clear about scenes, and then take a look at summary.
What Is A Scene?
Plays are written in scenes. Characters come onstage, and speak and interact in real time. When the action is being “dramatized”–meaning events are taking place while we’re watching them–we are like the audience in a play.
As the tension ramps up, the audience must decide which characters are good or bad. We must deduce motives. The effort to figure this out keeps our attention on the actors’ body language and dialogue.
Several scenes make up an act. Each act builds to a climax: a game-changing development that permanently alters the protagonist’s life going forward.
Hamlet As A Case Study
Let’s take Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example. The first scene takes place on the battlements of Elsinore castle. Although Prince Hamlet is the main character (the protagonist), he does not appear in the first scene. All the action takes place between the watchmen, who summon Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, to witness the apparition of the dead King.
In Scene 2, the new King–Claudius–holds court, and Hamlet, the Prince, is just one of the matters the King must deal with. But he does deal with the issue that carries forward from the first scene, namely the ghost of Hamlet’s father, lurking around the castle. Claudius deals with this issue by chiding Hamlet for wearing mourning clothes. This is an example of how important it is for the emotional weight of one scene to ripple into the next. The plot of Hamlet hinges on whether the prince will finally become capable of escaping his “paralysis by analysis” and taking action to avenge his father’s death.
Plot is the emotional baggage carried from one scene into the next. It’s not simply “things happening.” Plot has to do with the emotional weight of those things on the mind and feelings of the protagonist.
Scenes in Fiction
Think of a scene in fiction as one of the building blocks of your novel. Each scene must reveal new information or show a different side of the character. If you can truly place a character in a scene and bring him alive, your readers will remember those moments, just as they would remember an actor on a stage.
That’s not the only reason scenes are good. Scenes also allow you to build in complexity. To be sympathetic and seem real, protagonist’s can be one-dimensional.
What is the one thing your character wants? You should definitely show that in scene.
But, also write a scene that dramatizes the character wanting the very opposite of that. Why? Because if you can “dramatize” both things, then the audience will “get” that the character is conflicted.
In the novel I’m working on, the fifteen-year-old protagonist wants to take a shortcut to fame and fortune. An orphan, he yearns for a father figure to protect him. However, he often goes off half-cocked and believes he’s old enough to make his own way in the world.
Two scenes at the beginning of the book dramatize his inner conflict. One shows the first characteristic, and the other scene shows him acting impulsively. I’m hoping readers will understand that he can’t reach one goal without sacrificing the other.
Blocking Out Your Scenes
Use scenes to give your book some preliminary shape. I shoot for 35 to 40 scenes. That’s so I can write scenes of 10 to 12 pages. I use Scrivener to block them out.
But, that number isn’t writ in stone. Author Randy Ingermanson says that 50 to 200 scenes constitute a novel. With more scenes, the page count for each scene goes down.
In his book Story Physics, author Larry Brooks talks about how the number of scenes affects the pacing of the plot. He has created this helpful graphic on scenes and dramatic structure. To keep the novel from sprawling all over the place without a plot, Brooks advocates outlining.
Mapping Out Scenes
Not everyone wants to do an outline, but at some point, mapping out the major scenes can be a big help. If you’re a first-time novelist, about 50 to 80 pages into the book, you may have a panic attack. “Oh, my gosh. I have no idea where this is going.” Don’t give up. This is your discovery draft, and it’s entirely possible to write an entire draft and then begin to construct a plot. If that frightens you, then try this approach.
Figure out a preliminary destination. How will the character change from the beginning of the book to the end?
An Overview of the Plot in Gone With the Wind
In Gone With the Wind, sixteen-year-old Scarlett O’Hara is avid in her pursuit of Ashley Wilkes, and she will stop at nothing to win his love. After alienating the one man who could stand up to her–Rhett Butler–she ends up alone, but with her plantation Tara.
What are the main scenes that constitute Scarlett’s journey from Southern belle to a woman who must live with the consequences of her choices? Imagine the movie, or even better, watch it, and make a list of the scenes.
What will happen to your characters? In which scenes will they confront their own illusions? When will they stand at a fork in the road? Where will characters make moral choices–decisions that will haunt their consciences or turn them into different people than they were at the start of the book? What will they win? What will they lose?
Set up two conflicting goals in the beginning. Keep your eye on those goals. Keep the reader hoping that the character will be able to reach both goals. At the climax, show the character forced to choose between them.
How Is Summary Different from Scene?
In summaries, the ticking clock speeds up. A summary can cover months or years. Because of that, summaries are an efficient way to move the story forward.
Passages of summary also provide a needed break. Readers grow weary if confronted with too much dialogue or too much heart-racing action. Readers need context. They need to understand why the character behaves a certain way. Summary passages provide history, the character’s “take” on other characters, details of setting, and, sometimes, foreshadowing.
An Example from J.M. Coetzee
In the writing sample below, imagine how many scenes would have been required to convey the same information—the father’s disdain, the mother’s repeated efforts to learn to ride a bicycle, and the child’s shifting allegiance. And notice how efficiently this summary passage allows the author, J.M. Coetzee, to bring in elements from the past.
At first he had thought it splendid that his mother should have her own bicycle. He had even pictured the three of them riding together down Poplar Avenue, she and he and his brother. But now, as he listens to his father’s jokes, which his mother can meet only with dogged silence, he begins to waver. Women don’t ride bicycles: what if his father is right? If his mother can find no one willing to teach her, if no other housewife in Reunion Park has a bicycle, then perhaps women are indeed not supposed to ride bicycles.
Alone in the back yard, his mother tries to teach herself. Holding her legs out straight on either side, she rolls down the incline toward the chicken-run. The bicycle tips over and comes to a stop. Because it does not have a crossbar, she does not fall, merely staggers about in a silly way, clutching the handlebars.
His heart turns against her. That evening he joins in with his father’s jeering. He is well aware what a betrayal this is. Now his mother is all alone.
Nevertheless she does learn to ride, though in an uncertain, wobbling way, straining to turn the heavy cranks.
She makes her expeditions to Worcester in the mornings, when he is at school. Only once does he catch a glimpse of her on her bicycle. She is wearing a white blouse and a dark skirt. She is coming down Poplar Avenue toward the house. Her hair streams in the wind. She looks young, like a girl, young and fresh and mysterious. (J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life.)
Showing Vs. Telling
In the most basic sense, summary passages require the writer to confront the issue of “show, don’t tell.” Showing is what authors do when they write dramatic scenes. Telling is what happens in summary passages.
To be effective, summary passages must provide detail so that the reader can visualize what the character is hearing, smelling, and experiencing over a period of months or years.
An Example from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War Novel
The passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried covers an entire summer. Notice how the passage has a plot. The “I” narrator shows us the reality of the meatpacking plant. At the end of the passage, we learn that, all this time, the narrator has had a draft notice in his pocket.
I spent the summer of 1968 working in an Armour meatpacking plant in my hometown of Worthington, Minnesota. The plant specialized in pork products, and for eight hours a day I stood on a quarter-mile assembly line — more properly, a disassembly line — removing blood clots from the necks of dead pigs. My job title, I believe, was Declotter. After slaughter, the hogs were decapitated, split down the length of the belly, pried open, eviscerated, and strung up by the hind hocks on a high conveyer belt. Then gravity took over. By the time a carcass reached my spot on the line, the fluids had mostly drained out, everything except for thick clots of blood in the neck and upper chest cavity. To remove the stuff, I used a kind of water gun. The machine was heavy, maybe eighty pounds, and was suspended from the ceiling by a heavy rubber cord. There was some bounce to it, an elastic up-and-down give, and the trick was to maneuver the gun with your whole body, not lifting with the arms, just letting the rubber cord do the work for you. At one end was a trigger; at the muzzle end was a small nozzle and a steel roller brush. As a carcass passed by, you’d lean forward and swing the gun up against the clots and squeeze the trigger, all in one motion, and the brush would whirl and water would come shooting out and you’d hear a quick splattering sound as the clots dissolved into a fine red mist. It was not pleasant work. Goggles were a necessity, and a rubber apron, but even so it was like standing for eight hours a day under a lukewarm blood-shower. At night I’d go home smelling of pig. It wouldn’t go away. Even after a hot bath, scrubbing hard, the stink was always there — like old bacon, or sausage, a dense greasy pig-stink that soaked deep into my skin and hair. Among other things, I remember, it was tough getting dates that summer. I felt isolated; I spent a lot of time alone. And there was also that draft notice tucked away in my wallet. (Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried)
Effective as this is, you should know that Tim O’Brien could have used scenes to tell the story. Here are my thoughts about what those might have been:
- a scene where he’s working on the Declotter and the equipment jams
- a scene in the lunchroom where he’s with his buddies in the plant, and they’re griping about the Vietnam war or their low wages
- a scene where he goes home and his mom gives him grief about the way he smells
- a scene where he calls a girl and she refuses to go out with him
All of the above possibilities could have been dramatized and shown in real time–meaning “in scene.” Instead, this passage speeds through the summer before the narrator goes to Vietnam. That’s because the author knows the important scenes will take place over there. He doesn’t want to squander story space by putting undue emphasis on this summer.
Make Conscious Choices About Scene and Summary
Sometimes, passages of summary should be dramatized—written in scene. The emotional impact is greater; plus, readers are more likely to remember dramatized scenes than passages of summary.
Compare the summary below (that I wrote) with the scene, as written by the author, Katherine Shonk, in her stunning short story, “My Mother’s Garden.”
Despite signs warning people not to enter the Contamination Zone, I had to visit my mother, who lived deep in the forest, still farming land that once belonged to our collective. Now, she lived there with a few old women. I met her in the field but, because my isotope levels were up, I couldn’t bring myself to give my mother or her friend Ganna, another old babushka, a kiss. Mother babbled about the daily events of her life, just as if nothing was going on, when, in fact, even my mother’s giant onions were contaminated. Unless I can persuade her to leave, she will never see her granddaughter again.–(Marylee’s summary, not the author’s)
Katherine Shonk’s Original Passage from The Red Passport
The short story, about a family living near the contamination zone in Chernobyl, uses scenes to dramatize the plight of an elderly grandmother.
A breeze blew up from the river, rustling the grass and swaying the sign that leaned in the middle of the field, its red warning chipped and peeling.
“Yuuuulia!” Mama cried, brandishing her ax in greeting. She and her friend Ganna, their aprons filled with pine branches, met me in the field. They smiled, wide and gap-toothed, squinting in the cool sunlight, their soft fat faces framed with kerchiefs. They were waiting for me to touch them, a kiss or a pat, but I hesitated, and the moment passed.
“Ganna, take some of these logs I’ve brought Mama,” I said. But they had begun to divvy up their branches, each scolding the other for not taking her fair share.
Inside the house, I stacked the logs by the stove. “I’ve got a perfectly good forest in my backyard, and you bring me firewood,” Mama complained.
She made me a cup of tea and examined my loot, grunting her approval at the sausage links, the bag of sugar, and the box of tea. “Enough for a dress,” I said, unfolding a length of flowered fabric. The white material shone like a beam of light in the run-down house, where the teacups were stained brown and wallpaper roses were buried beneath a layer of grit.
Mama showed me a bucketful of green onions she’d grown in her garden. “Delicious,” she said, chomping on one. “Here, you try.”
“Mania, you know I won’t eat that,” I said.
“Summer is corning,” she said. “Ganna’s Oksana is bringing her little girls here in a few weeks.”
“They should be arrested for bringing children here.” Each time I visit, my mother hints that she’d like me to bring my thirteen-year-old daughter, Halynka, to see her. She doesn’t seem to understand that it is something I will never do. (Katherine Shonk, The Red Passport)
Balance Scene and Summary
See how much more effective scenes are in making you, the reader, feel like you’re right there?
Pick up a book–any book–and flip the pages. Which pages are dialogue heavy? Those are the scenes.
Where you do find long passages of text? Where does the author speed through time? Most likely, those are passages of summary.
Think of this as a teeter-totter. If you’re writing conventional fiction, not an experimental novel, you’ll want to make conscious choices about which scenes to use and how to handle summary. Maybe, when you’re staring at that stack of paper, you’ll see possibilities for condensing some of your scenes into efficient, emotion-packed summary.
In another blog post, I talk about half-scenes. As you might guess, half-scenes combine scene and summary; but done well, they provide the illusion that the reader is experiencing the story in real time.
If you’d like to download a pdf that includes several blog posts on Scene and Summary, you can grab it here.