Sunday, September 26, 2010

Expansion and Contraction: The Art of Working with Scene and Summary in Your Writing

Every book balances immediate writing in present time and writing that feels more reflective, that shares a passage of time or an overview of events. “Scene” and “summary” create different effects. In revision they need to be considered for placement and quantity in your book.

Imagine a story with nothing but scene. It feels very close-up and personal, with everything happening right in front of us, right now, a string of individual moments, all important and vivid. The pace is so ridiculously fast, though, there is little time to absorb the meaning of what’s happening.

Scene’s opposite is summary. Summary spans time, condensing a repeated event that takes place over a period of days, months, or years, like driving cross-country. If scene is like “showing,” summary is like “telling.” If scene gets our hearts racing with the tension of the story, summary feels more like a collection of digested impressions.

A strong book will alternate the two, placing them for effect. You may not use scene to give a blow-by-blow description of a cross-country trip, when the important action doesn’t happen until arrival, as in Andrew Pham’s memoir Catfish and Mandala. Pham uses summary in many places in his book to show the passage of months of a bicycle journey through a foreign country.  Here's just one: “When I was hungry or thirsty, I stopped at ranches and farms and begged the owners for water from their wells and tried to buy tortillas, eggs, goat cheese, and fruit. Every place gave me nourishment; men and women plucked grapefruits and tangerines from their family gardens, bagged food from their pantries, and accepted not one peso in return.”

But Pham switches to scene’s immediacy when he meets someone of consequence who has great impact on the story, as in this moment where we're introduced to a man he meets one night.  Notice the detailed description, the sense that this man is actually onstage before us: “His Viking face mashes up, twisting like a child’s just before the first brawl. It doesn’t come. Instead words cascade out, disjointed sentences, sputtering incoherence that at the initial rush sound like a drunk’s ravings.”

One of my students, now a coaching client, pinpointed these passages when I asked her to begin studying scene and summary in her own book.  It was easier with Pham's work, less easy with a more abstract writer such as Joan Didion, she told me.  

I asked her to look at Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which recounts the months after her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack.  Didion's writing often contains a great deal of summary which balances her trademark sparsity of prose, her short sentences and simple words.  But in this book, it helps balance her traumatic story as well.  Here's one example:  “I recall a fight over the question of whether we should go to Paris in November,” Didion writes. “I did not want to go. I said we had too much to do and too little money. He said he had a sense that if he did not go to Paris in November he would never again go to Paris.” Do you feel the edge there?  The hint of despair?  We are kept on this edge precisely because there’s plenty of meaning in this simple summary—regret and rage at what might have been and can never be now.

You learn to evaluate where you want the impact, how to balance your natural tendency to expand or contract in your early drafts.

Expansion writers pour forth ideas in quantity during the “island” stage, with always more to add—one more flashback, one more setting detail, one more idea. Contraction writers create prose as sparse as Didion’s, where each word costs a million dollars, and there’s a tendency to edit as you go.

Practice adjusting these tendencies in revision, as you play with pacing: if you have too many expanded scenes, you contract some into summary. Too much summary? Unpack the writing, as you would reveal the contents of a crammed suitcase by spreading them out on the bed. Expand key emotional moments for more meaning.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Set a kitchen timer for fifteen minutes. Begin to write about a childhood event that influenced you greatly. Don’t overthink this exercise, just let it rip. No editing along the way!

2. Read the piece out loud. Whenever you get interested, as you read, highlight the paragraph that pulled you in. (It’s essential to read out loud—you’re switching from a writer’s viewpoint to a reader’s.)

3. Contract (condense) the paragraph into one sentence, as short as possible, without losing the essence of the larger paragraph.

4. Now expand this one sentence into five new sentences (a new paragraph).

5. Which was easier for you, expansion or contraction? Think about what this short exercise taught you about your natural tendency as a writer.

6. Return to your original freewrite about the childhood experience. Select another favorite section. Apply the aspect (expand or contract) that was the most difficult for you in steps 3 and 4. If you had trouble with expansion, expand the section to three or more paragraphs. If you had trouble with contraction, condense the section to half its length.

7. Read the new writing out loud. Can you notice the difference in flow, in music, in pacing?


  1. Nice article, thanks for sharing.

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