I haven’t really written about the craft of writing yet and how I’ve worked to hone my own skills over the years (and still work), so I thought I’d take a little time out from the self-pity party and share with you about a topic near and dear to to my heart: scene versus [narrative] summary, also known as show versus tell.
Yes, welcome back to kindergarten!
Okay, so you might have had a prof or colleague or friend say to you, ‘Most of this story is narrative summary! You’ve to got to “show” me the story, not just “tell” it!’ Well, even if you haven’t I most certainly have. My very first story workshop, in fact, I was told by my prof that most of my story was in narrative summary and therefore not really very interesting. At the time I was like, ‘Whassat?’ with a typical quizzical look on my face, and despite what were some very good tips for getting into scene, it took me a couple more years and two more fiction profs before I really clued in on the difference and how to get out of one (summary) and into the other (scene).
Basically a scene is where you describe action exactly as it happens, chronologically, and stage dialogue. Summary is basically when you write ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and finally this happened and they all lived happily ever after.’ Believe it or not, the latter is how most classic fairy tales were written. Instead of ‘the fairy said “Was your axe this silver one or this gold one?” and held each up before him,’ the story actually goes something like ‘and then the fairy asked the woodsmen if his axe was the silver one or the gold one.’ Get it?
Yeah, me neither.
If you read my description of scene above you’ll notice it’s somehow lacking. That’s the problem with scene; it’s hard to describe what it is, even compared to summary (you could say ‘the opposite of summary’ but that doesn’t make sense either), and it’s even harder to explain how you ‘get into scene’ when you’re writing a story (and not, say, a play, which is usually told entirely in scenes, obviously). Well, I guess that’s an even better way to describe a scene: think of it like a scene in a play. Mercutio is just hanging out and Tybalt comes along and says ‘Hey, you’re Romeo’s consort, right?’ Mercutio says ‘What are you trying to imply, buddy?’ Romeo shows up and Mercutio and Tybalt draw swords and fight. (yes, I did just summarize a scene). But in the case of writing fiction, you will find there’s often narrative in between lines of dialogue, but that doesn’t always involve action so the analogy becomes a tiny bit problematic.
The easiest way I’ve found to remember and to explain the difference between scene and summary is by example. Rather than referring to any particular book or story, I just wrote my own little in two versions. One is in summary and the other in scene. Without further ado, The Gnome and The Wizard.
Once upon a time a gnome and a wizard met under a tree. They argued about whose tree it was, with the gnome claiming he had carved his name into the bark. The wizard won the argument by hitting the gnome over the head with his staff. The gnome left, defeated. The end.
Once upon a time there was a wizard. He stood under a tree in deep meditation. A gnome appeared from around the other side of the tree and stood before the wizard.
“Hey, this is my tree! Get out of here,” said the gnome, breaking the wizard’s concentration.
“It is not!This tree is a place of great power and belongs to those such as myself who can channel that power,” the wizard replied.
“No, it is mine. See that right there?” He pointed to a group of scratch marks on the tree’s bark. “That’s my name!”
“Fiend! That is but the mere scratchings of a bird!” The wizard raised his staff above his head and brought the knotted end down upon the gnome’s unsuspecting head. The gnome staggered backward, rubbing the spot where he’d been struck. He didn’t dare to argue with the old wizard any longer, for he feared there might be an0ther knock on his head, or worse. Instead he left, with his head hung in shame. The end.
Here’s the test: which is a scene, and which is a summary? They both ‘tell’ a story, but one actually ‘shows’ the story.
Version 2 shows, version 1 tells. The secret is in the dialogue.
Way back when my first prof told me I wrote in summary, the tip she gave me to get out of it and into a scene was to get my characters talking. The story would then naturally fall into scene. Now, sometimes you have a character alone in a room so it’s not always possible to get them talking. What are they going to do? Talk to the walls? But just taking the time to practice writing scenes that begin with two characters having a conversation was what eventually taught me how to write a scene, whether it has talking or not. Don’t ask me how; it just worked.
Well, that and reading a few Cormac McCarthy novels. I definitely recommend All the Pretty Horses.
Your homework: In 1000 words or so, write out your favourite Shakespearean play from memory. For the parts you remember well, write scenes with your own, original dialogue. For the parts you’re not so sure about, write narrative summary. If you’re not into Shakespeare try it with your favourite movie instead.
You can send me your result to ericathrone at gmail dot com if you’d like. I might even read it!
And on that note my first post on craft is completed! Huzzah! Hopefully this will help someone someday. At the very least, it’s nice to get this out of my head. Goodnight!