I haven’t written any new posts lately because I’ve been consumed with two other creative projects. The first is the project of creating a new human. Yes, I’m having a second child! And for the first ten weeks of this pregnancy I was exhausted and constantly nauseated, and I spent my writing time napping instead.
Once the nausea and exhaustion passed, I got a burst of energy, and for the past three weeks I have been pounding away at a new YA novel (I’ve now written over a hundred pages!)
I’m really into my new novel right now. I’m in love with the characters and the thickening plot. I haven’t reached that (inevitable) time when I start to get bored and frustrated, when I notice the flaws and wonder if I should abandon this manuscript for some new, shiny idea. I’m still in the honeymoon phase, and I hope it lasts at least until the first draft is done.
One thing I notice about this period of being in love with my characters is the tendency to want to follow them everywhere. Take them through every part of their day, from breakfast to bedtime, whether or not the scenes are actually necessary to the story. I’m having to remember to only include scenes that move my plot forward, and to use summary to jump ahead to the next important scene.
Which is why I thought today’s post could be about the importance of summary and scene in fiction.
What Do You Mean by Summary and Scene?
In fiction writing, a scene is when the writer puts us directly into a specific place and time and shows us what’s happening through dialogue, action, internal thoughts, and description.
Summary, on the other hand, is when the writer tells us something without creating a full scene.
I woke up late and didn’t have time to eat breakfast.
I open my eyes to see light coming in through my blinds. That’s weird. Normally it’s still dark when my alarm goes off. I turn to look at my clock – it’s 8:02! Which means the bus is coming in exactly five minutes.
“Sarah? Are you ready?” Mom calls from downstairs.
I leap out of bed and grab a pair of underwear from my drawer. My stomach growls, but I tell it to shut up. No time for breakfast. I’ll be lucky if I manage to get fully dressed.
Are Summary and Scene Like Showing and Telling?
You may have noticed that summary and scene are closely related to showing and telling. A scene is when the writer shows us what the characters are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. Summary is when the writer tells us information.
Well, you might say, aren’t we supposed to show instead tell? Yes, that’s what writers are often told. And yes, showing is very important. A novel with no scenes would likely be very boring.
However, a good piece of fiction needs a mix of summary and scene. There should be quite a bit more scene (showing) than summary (telling), but summary still has its place.
Here is an example from the middle grade novel Holes by Louis Sacchar of two mini-scenes blended with summary. (I have put the scenes in bold to distinguish them from the summary.)
Stanley’s great-great-grandfather was named Elya Yelnats. He was born in Latvia. When he was fifteen years old he fell in love with Myra Menke.
(He didn’t know he was Stanley’s great-great-grandfather.)
Myra Menke was fourteen. She would turn fifteen in two months, at which time her father had decided she should be married.
Elya went to her father to ask for her hand, but so did Igor Barkov, the pig farmer. Igor was fifty-seven years old. He had a red nose and fat puffy cheeks.
“I will trade you my fattest pig for your daughter,” Igor offered.
“And what have you got?” Myra’s father asked Elya.
“A heart full of love,” said Elya.
“I’d father have a fat pig,” said Myra’s father.
Desperate, Elya went to see Madame Zeroni, an old Egyptian woman who lived on the edge of town. He had become friends with her, though she was quite a bit older than him…
“Elya, what’s wrong?” she asked, before he even told her he was upset. She was sitting in a homemade wheelchair. She had no left foot. Her leg stopped at her ankle.
“I’m in love with Myra Menke,” Elya confessed. “But Igor Barkov has offered to trade his fattest pig for her. I can’t compete with that.”
“Good,” said Madame Zeroni. “you’re too young to get married.”
When to Use Summary (Telling):
–For transitions. Maybe there’s an important scene that happens on Monday afternoon, but the next important scene doesn’t happen until the weekend. You can use a paragraph of summary to skip ahead then drop us into the next big scene.
–When a full-blown scene would be boring or unnecessary.
–For exposition or quick back-story. (Some telling, especially at the beginning, is normal.)
–When there is a jump – either in time/space or mood/focus.
–To set the tone or mood of the story, chapter, or upcoming scene.
Remember, it’s okay to tell sometimes. In fact, summary can be quite compelling and can set the tone of your overall story. Check out the beginning of Chapter 1 from the YA novel We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.
Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.
The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.
It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.
It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.
that equally desperate measures
must be taken.
The example above is clearly not a scene. We are not in a particular time or place. We are simply being told things about the Sinclair family. It is quite compelling, and it sets the tone of the novel to come. Of course, we will want a scene soon, but this summary is whetting our appetite nicely.
When to Use Scene (Showing):
In all likelihood, your novel will be a collection of scenes held together by short sections of summary. (And there may also be short bits of summary within your scenes as well.)
You should use scenes to show us the crucial moments of your story: moments of conflict, decision, action, emotion, revelation, and change.
In other words, you don’t need a scene of your character going to the bathroom, unless something important to the story happens in there.
The building blocks of a scene are:
- Internal character thought
Remember, you can start your scene as close to the important action as you’d like. I would argue, the closer the better.
* * *
That’s all for today. I’m eager to get back to my novel now! The goal is to finish the first draft before the new baby comes — wish me luck!
What about you? Do you find yourself writing unnecessary scenes? Or telling instead of showing? Is your WIP a healthy mix of summary and scene? Leave a comment below!
Ingmar Albizu says
When I outline, I break the plot into scenes.
I think I like your breakdown better.
Great article, Eva. Good luck with your novel.