One of the most difficult aspects of writing for beginners to master is the art of balancing scene and summary. At its most basic, the distinction between these is not that complicated. Summary, by definition, encompasses a large amount of information in a condensed form. A scene, on the other hand, is a place or a vista, something we experience in its fullness, first-hand. Thus, it should be pretty easy to distinguish these in a narrative. A scene would be a discrete event retold in the fullness of time and place, and a summary or exposition would be a condensed narrative covering perhaps many events in just a few sentences using sparse details. Simple? Not quite. What are we to make of a paragraph such as this, for example:
Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. "Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you're so pretty?" she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.Is this a “scene”? Or is this summary? This opening paragraph of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has some of the markings of a scene. We seem to have specific action and detail: “she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right.” We even have dialogue. But we do not have a scene. This is summary.
A scene is a single, specific setting. What Oates writes above is representative of several scenes: many times in her life, Connie cranes her neck to glance into mirrors, perhaps at the mall, walking by the open bathroom door, or in the rearview mirror of the car. Oates is not telling us, in this paragraph, about any one of these moments; she is telling us about all of them, summarizing them into what she calls Connie’s habit. Notice also the many uses of “always” and “would.” The dialogue that we have is not being said at one particular moment, it is something Connie’s mother “always would” say. She may have said it several times, and Oates is summarizing all those times into this one representative comment. Notice how Oates shifts into a scene in the paragraph below:
Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out. The restaurant was shaped like a big bottle, though squatter than a real bottle, and on its cap was a revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft. One night in midsummer they ran across, breathless with daring, and right away someone leaned out a car window and invited them over, but it was just a boy from high school they didn't like. It made them feel good to be able to ignore him. . . .The beginning of this paragraph is still summary: “Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway . . . .” Sometimes. These are representative, recurring actions. Connie and her friend go to these places several times, and, at first, Oates is telling us about the habit, not any one particular moment. She shifts to scene, however, when she says “one night.” Suddenly, we are not hearing about many nights together; we are watching one particular night in midsummer. Only on this night, and no other, did a boy from high school lean out the car window and invite them over right away. Oates goes on to tell us of the first time Connie meets Arnold Friend in this short scene, and goes back to summary mode in just four paragraphs. Three more paragraphs of summary and she begins the last scene of the story, the climax in which Arnold Friend comes over to Connie’s house. She sustains this scene to the end of the story, turning what amounts to maybe less than half an hour of action into the longest chunk of the story: 5,364 words out of 6,925. Excluding the first, shorter scene at the drive-in, the remaining 1008 words of summary encompass that entire summer of Connie’s life.
A scene, in other words, slows down the pace of story to real time or slower. Notice how slow the pace of the following scene is, from the climax of the story, when Connie realizes Arnold Friend has her trapped and she has nowhere to turn to for help:
She turned and bumped against a chair or something, hurting her leg, but she ran into the back room and picked up the telephone. Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.This is slower than real time. In real time, this action might not take more than a minute, maybe two. But Oates slows the pace down deliberately, telling us not only what Connie does or what she hears, but what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s a wonderful way of heightening the tension of the moment—we must wait to find out what she’s going to do next, what’s going to happen to her. We are with her in this moment, watching her ourselves rather than being told, second-hand, what she is like.
That’s the value of a scene, and why you should avoid summary as much as possible. Summary is functional, and the more plot you are trying to cram into a story, the more necessary it might become. It is also useful for going over information that we need to know but is not interesting, such as the ten years Character X spent in prison. If all he did while he was there was read crime novels and avoid dropping the soap, perhaps it’s best to skip quickly to the part where he gets out and seeks his revenge or whatever. Most times, however, the beginning writer overuses summary, tries to cram too much story into too little space. And while you can have a great story that is all scene and no summary, the reverse is not true. I can tell you all of “Where Are You Going” in just a few words: “There once was a girl named Connie who was really pretty and knew it and loved the feeling of being admired by boys and thought nothing was wrong with that. She failed to see the danger of adult sexuality and was easily manipulated by a grown man who didn’t see a single special thing about her.” There you go. 56 words to Oates’s 6,925.
We’re not just talking word count, however. Look at all that’s lost in summary: specific detail, action, setting, dialogue. All the drama is gone. Think of scenes as those cheesy commercial dramatizations: it’s one thing to tell you that this alarm system can save your family from a burglar, and a whole ‘nother to hire some actors to run from a guy in a ski mask. You see the family being threatened by the burglar, you fear the same thing happening to yours. You go get an alarm. It’s the difference between being told about the horrible car accident and watching it happen before your own eyes. You may be able to imagine how horrible it was if someone tells you about it, but when you see it first-hand you never forget it. Scenes are the ultimate way to “show, don’t tell.”
So, how do you create a scene? For one thing, slow down! Don’t cram ten years into one paragraph. Pick a single moment in your story to tell at a time, and relegate whatever information we need to know that happens before or after to the background. The story about the day the house got broken into does not begin in the morning, eighteen hours before the burglar got there, with sentences such as “Daisy went to work that day just like any other day.” No; the story begins with “Daisy heard the creak of the front door opening and put her book down. There was no one else in the house.” Spend two pages on the four minutes it takes Daisy to sneak down her dark hallway and peek around the potted fern at the front door. Describe the feel of the cold floor under her bare feet. Tell me that she’s wishing she had bought that alarm system. Real time, or slower.
It helps to think of your writing cinematically. Pretend someone has bought the rights to turn your story into a film, and asked for your help. Where is your opening scene? Where is Daisy reading when she hears the creak of the front door? In bed? There’s your location. It might help to study how scriptwriters make this conversion. Oates’s story has been filmed a couple of times, but the most widely available version is the 1985 adaptation starring Laura Dern as Connie, Smooth Talk. Tom Cole did a really good job of turning a two-scene story into a ninety-two minute film. He took some of Oates’s “representative” moments and turned them into full scenes, such as when Connie and her pals romp through the mall. All Oates gives us in the story is a quick symbolic impression of what the girls “must have been” like, but in the film the scene has them walking in and out of stores, talking, and generally making teens of themselves for a good chunk of time. Conversely, the final scene goes by much faster: that paragraph where Connie grabs the phone I quoted above is just a brief moment, the fullness of Connie’s horror more quickly conveyed by the simultaneity of visual, auditory, and spatial detail possible in film.
Ultimately, however, the case may be that beginning writers think too cinematically. Many of the excessively summarized stories I read from students feel a lot like being told about a movie: “ . . . and then Connie stayed home one day and the guy from the drive-in comes by and . . . .” All the details of the scene are in the writer’s head, but she is unable to put them on the page. If that’s the case with you, just remember that it’s not just the plot that makes the film good. A quick overview of the action is not able to convey the awesomeness of all that surrounds it: the looks on the actors’ faces, the exact tone of their voices, the incredible sets on which they are standing. These are what create a scene in both print and film, not just actions and dialogue. Take the time to notice these in film as well as print: the sets, the costumes, the background noises. If you want to write about your yearly trip to the beach, isolate just one morning of one year you took that trip, and bring us with you.