Friday, February 17, 2017

Scene versus Summary--Which to Use for What Effect

I like picking up what I call "airport reads," just to see what's up in commercial fiction.  Airport reads are those books that airport bookstalls buy, thinking they'll take travelers' minds off flying.  It's a big coup to get your book in an airport bookstall, and over the years, I've seen more serious fiction arrive on those shelves.


Recently, I got a copy of JoJo Moyes' new book, After You.  Her novel, Me before You, a story of a woman caretaker for a paraplegic who helps him with assisted suicide, was made into a movie, and I enjoyed it a lot--good characters, tense situation.  Moyes is a master wordsmith, expertly pacing her stories.  After You is the sequel, as you may have imagined, and it also starts with a bang--the main character falls off a roof and has to return home to her parents while she heals.

This is an airport read, so it's not deep, but it's entertaining.  I started the novel one night before bed and stayed up later than I wanted, unable to stop reading the first two chapters, enjoying the dialogue, the expert delivery of character, the pacing. 

Then I hit the third chapter.  Hmmmm, I thought, it almost felt like it was written by another author.  Slow, heavy with backstory, the interrelationships not as deftly shown on the page.

I needed my sleep so I put it aside.  Tried to pick it up the next night, got through chapter 3, but I haven't wanted to go back to it since.

I spoke with a friend who'd read it.  "It's a good story, worth reading," she said, "but I also noticed a slow down after those opening chapters."

The writing teacher (and writer) in me got intrigued. 

So this week, I spent some time studying the structure.  The most obvious element I noticed was that chapters 1 and 2 were mostly scene.  They had a brisk pace, lots of tension, lively dialogue, and specific settings.  Chapter 3 was mostly summary.  Lots of backstory, not much happening, a good deal of the chapter presented as thoughts and feelings.  Very slow stuff.

A basic difference between scene and summary.

One of my writing students had asked about scene and summary in class this week, so perfect timing.  My research would come in handy.

Basic definitions of scene and summary:

Scene:  includes specific location, characters moving around onstage (movement), and dialogue.  There's tension, things are happening.  Usually doesn't include much backstory or time passing.

Summary:  can span many locations, events are often condensed or summarized, lack of movement onstage, not much tension.  Often includes backstory.  

Effect on the reader:  Scene promotes tension and movement, a faster pace.  Summary is like a pause to absorb, reflect.

When to use either:  If you want tension, use scene.  If you want the reader to pause, use summary.

It's not that I'm a scene junkie.  I like well-written summary as much as the next reader.   But placement is everything.  When Moyes chose summary for her third chapter, as a reader I was stalled out.  I still needed the build of tension before all that summarized backstory got thrown in.  It might have worked in smaller doses, along with scenes.  It might have worked in a later chapter.  As it is, I'm probably going to drag myself back to the book and work through my resistance as a reader, but I'm also going to look at my own (and my students') scene/summary balance much more carefully. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
See if you can identify scene and summary in a piece of published writing.  Then ask yourself how it comes across to you as a reader.  Finally, where has the author placed it, in the book?  Is it appropriate to that spot?

Then look at one of your own beginning chapters.  Do a careful scan for summarized sections and get ruthless:  Do you really need them, just here?  Would they be better used later, in smaller bits, or not at all?