Scene vs. Summary: Staying in the Moment

“Condition yourself to stay in the moment and write through it.”

When one of my creative writing professors said this, he was trying to stress the importance of scene over summary after he saw our tendency, time and again, to build up tension and conflict in our scenes, only to back off and move into summary.

scene vs summary

The blog Writing with Celia does a thorough explanation of the difference between scene and summary, so I’ll just say a little bit about why the distinction is important, and how you can go about balancing your prose.

The kind of summary my professor was talking about is not the kind you start or close a chapter with, or that you use to fill in background details (though there’s something to be said for using less of that, too).  No, this is more about choosing which moments to make scenes, and which to summarize.

Why is scene so important?

Scenes are the building blocks of novels and short stories.  Some short stories are made up of just one scene, and some novels use little summary.  But it doesn’t work the other way around, and stories and novels cannot primarily consist of summary.

Mostly it comes down to this: scene is much more memorable.

When you think about your favorite novel, what comes to mind?  You can recall what it’s about, certainly, and details of the characters’ personalities, and maybe some of the major themes.

But when I think about Wuthering Heights, I remember the scene where Heathcliff digs up Cathy’s coffin.  And Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone makes me think of the sequence when Harry, Ron, and Hermione must pass each professor’s obstacle in order to reach the stone.

One reason Hemingway’s stories are so powerful is because of his focus on scene. The meaning of much of his writing comes through the subtext. Imagine if he had just explained everything!

Sometimes it’s easier to write about big, emotional moments in your characters life through summary.  Or summary is a quicker way to give us a sense of a character and a relationship.  But that does not make it more effective.  Your reader is much more likely to believe that your characters are in love if you show the couple flirting or supporting one another through hard times than if you just say “They loved each other very much.”  Part of it is showing vs. telling, though it’s not enough to give examples.

This is not to say that summary has no place!  Especially if you’re at the point in revision where you’re keeping an eye on your word count, summary can be crucial.  It moves the story along without bogging it down in unnecessary details, and allows you to bring depth to short stories in which you wouldn’t have time to otherwise.

What can you do about it?

My professor’s suggestion: pick a chapter (or story) you’ve written and mark it up.  Highlight the scene and summary sections in different colors.  Spread the pages out on your floor and look down at them from above.  Are there big blocks of summary?  Is there perhaps more summary than there is scene?  From there, you can either cut unnecessary summary or try to spread it out more evenly over the course of the scene.

There’s not a golden ratio that will be perfect for your story, but you do want more scene than summary.  Awareness of your own writing tendencies is half the battle; a helpful, trustworthy second reader can point out the places where your story’s pacing and immediacy are affected by too much summary.

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4 thoughts on “Scene vs. Summary: Staying in the Moment

  1. Pingback: Creating a Setting for your Story | Nicoles Voice

  2. Pingback: Scene vs. Summary: Staying in the Moment | Don’t be “a writer.” | larrygrogan's Blog

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