Scene and Summary – An Indispensable Internal Structure of Showing and Telling
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Fictional stories, be they short, long, or somewhere in the middle, need internal structure to keep the reader engaged, and that structure should be invisible to the reader—it should seem so natural that is unnoticeable. The reader flows from scene, the so-called building block of fiction, to summary, the little bits in between the scenes that connect them so they make sense and keep the reader moving along, to scene again, to summary again, to... well, you get the point. As a writer, if you do this well, many other important elements of fiction like setting, pacing, action, and dialogue will fall into place or will at least be easier to fix if they don’t, and your reader will stay engaged and keep turning the pages.
There are only two parts to a story’s internal structure: scene and summary. This is not to say there are no beginnings, middles, ends, climaxes, denouements, arcs, conflicts, dialogues, settings, plots, or whatever, but it is to say that the development of these and other familiar story elements will take place in scenes and summaries. Your farmhand or shunned third daughter will be called to action in a scene at the beginning of your stereotypical fantasy novel, and he or she will defeat the dragon at the climax in a scene near the end. In between, he or she might get drunk in a scene, have sex in a scene, try to steal the ring from Frodo in a scene, push a rival of a cliff in a scene, etc. These scenes will be connected by summaries in which the character will assess what happened in the preceding scene, determine their options going forward, make a choice about what to do next, and then, like magic, enter the next scene. There are other little things that I’ll get to, but so far, this is all you need.
The most important distinction between scene and summary is that scenes happen in real-time: they are shown in play-by-play action and dialogue. Summary, on the other hand, is told in, well, summary. Yes, it’s part of the old showing/telling dichotomy. When you read (if you read about writing) that telling is sometimes okay, this summary interlude is what they mean. You are summarizing the events and thoughts of your character that lead to the next important event, which will take place in a scene.
In a scene, you show everything. Even the character’s thoughts are the actual thoughts they are having at that very moment:
“Abigail looked down at her chest. Shit, I’m bleeding, she realized. She picked up her sword again and swung it for the editor’s throat.”
It’s all real-time. And it is all showing, no telling. It’s just like a scene on film: there are no time lapses, no interruptions, no narrative navel-pondering, and for fuck’s sake don’t let your narrator tell the reader what’s about to be shown: “But it was too late for this editor, too late to save his own life. It was over. He raised his bloody shield to deflect the blow, but, well, it was too late, as I already fucking told you.”
Don’t do it. It’s a spoiler, and it will take the energy right out of your action. In scene, you strictly rely on your characters, their actions and their dialogue, to engage your reader and push your story forward. If the action in your scene is not as engaging as you’d like, you might go back and see if you are interrupting it with narrative babble and telling:
“Abigail had the editor pinned against the wall with her sword. She would finally kill him. She had waited years for this. She wasn’t a good swordswoman, but he was average at best. On the other hand, she had taken fencing lessons from a fantasy author two years ago at a castle in the Basque region of Spain. But she hadn’t practiced in a while, and her boots were too loose. Boots her mother bequeathed her in her will that would give her great traction. She nodded her head, set her jaw, gritted her teeth, sighed and glared at him with her icy, steely, blue-grey, narrowed, almond-shaped, medium-sized eyes. She wanted revenge… and on and on and on.”
Yes, this also includes some immediate thoughts, but are they worth stopping the action for at this moment? I doubt it. Cut the stuff that’s not extremely important right now, and then decide if any of it can go into the summary before or after the scene. And cut anything that is telling. Show that she isn’t a good swordswoman in the action or tell about it in the summary when she decides to fight the editor. And if you feel the need, show the boots giving her great traction when she almost slips and falls, and she internally thanks her mother for them. It will help make the action of the scene much more exciting and engaging.
The other piece of this two-pronged approach at fiction writing is summary, in which your narrator tells your readers what they need to know to get to the next scene. This will usually include, either explicitly or implicitly, the point-of-view character’s post-mortem of the preceding scene, their consideration of available options, and their choice of what important thing to do next, which will be shown in the next scene.
“After she killed the editor, the writer went home, took a hot bath, and went to bed. It felt good to kill the editor, and she thought it would really help her writing. It felt so good she wondered if she should get another editor and maybe kill him, too. She wished she had killed the one who told her to write everything in scenes and summaries. What kind of bullshit was that? She picked up her iPhone from her night table and scrolled through her contacts. Yeah, that’s him, she remembered, Mike Myers. That fucking guy. (And into the scene…) She pressed the call button and waited.
Yep, she remembered that squeaky voice. ‘Is this Mike Myers, the editor?’ she asked sensually.
‘Wait a second,’ he replied. ‘Didn’t you just kill an editor in a medieval swordfight and now you’re calling me on an iPhone? You know that’s an anachro—‘
‘Shut the fuck up! I’ll fucking kill you!’ She slammed the phone down, cracking its screen… (and then back to summary…)
The writer didn’t sleep well that night thinking of all the editors she wanted to kill…”
Even when your scene ends in a cliffhanger for one of your characters...
“The editor backed away from the sword-wielding madwoman as far as he could toward the cliff. Then his boot hit nothing but air and over he went, screaming,”
...you will still have a summary when you next visit the character. You might have a scene or a whole chapter featuring another set of characters in between. But when you return to your hero at the bottom of the cliff, you will summarize.
“The editor woke from the shock of his fall. He wondered how he had survived it. Then he noticed the fat, splatted alligator beneath him and realized it had cushioned his fall and saved his life. Thanks, alligator. He knew he’d lost this battle but not the war. He wouldn’t give up. He’d climb back up and confront the author again. There was no excuse for having five different characters ‘setting their jaws’ in one scene. He wouldn’t allow it… (and back into scene). He stood up and began to climb.”
The summary stage can also help you construct your setting for the next scene before launching into real-time.
“They had walked seventeen miles of hill country through a blizzard. They needed a place to stay for the night or they would freeze. At last, in the early evening, they spotted a house in a little ravine. It was a small white cape under a tall oak tree. Its lights were on and smoke rose in a plume from a chimney somewhere on the back of the roof. They continued to trudge through the thigh-high snow until they at last reached the front door of the house…” (and into the scene…).
The point here is to set up what you need in the scene. When the travellers get inside the house, you’ve already mentioned the fire that they can then throw the witch into. I can’t even count on my twenty-one fingers and toes how many times I’ve picked up a story to edit, and in the middle of scene a character reaches for something that just popped out of nowhere.
“She reached into the desk and took out knife.”
Desk? What desk? You never said anything about a desk. If this happens, you can go back to your transition from summary to scene and find a place to put the desk so it’s there when you need it later.
“The room inside was a lot like his mother’s living room. It had a sofa on one side, a TV on the other, and on the far wall was a large fireplace (okay, how about here) and next to it an old wooden desk.”
Similarly, having a well-defined internal structure of scenes and summaries can help with your pacing. Why does this story sag here? Well, most likely you have a scene (or scenes) that is too long for its relative importance to the story. Or it could be that your summary is too long relative to its importance to the story and the scenes it is sandwiched between. On the other hand, why does your climax, perhaps, lack the excitement and punch you want? Perhaps the scene is too short to express the full importance of your story’s main conflict that is soon to be resolved. Locate that exact scene and build up the tension in it with more conflict between the characters and more relevant action.
And that’s the basics of how it works: scene>summary>scene>etc., all the way from start to finish, two distinct ways of writing, interwoven to engage your reader and move your story forward in an effective, internally organized way.
This material is adapted from Dwight Swain’s indispensable book Techniques of the Selling Writer (University of Oklahoma Press). I’ve read dozens (and dozens) of books on writing, and it is by far my favourite. If you think you need brushing up on your knowledge of story structure or other practical fiction writing skills, please get yourself a copy.
Mike Myers is senior editor at British Fantasy Award Nominee Grimdark Magazine, and has worked in this capacity with such amazing authors as Mark Lawrence, Brian Staveley, Anna Smith Spark, Michael R. Fletcher, Aliette de Bodard, Alex Marshall (Jesse Bullington), and many more. He is also the editor of the r/fantasy Stabby Award-winning anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective. He is available for freelance editing and can be contacted through his website at www.sffeditor.com.