Friday, February 26, 2021

Summary Tells, Scene Shows--How to Use Each in Fiction and Memoir

I've been thinking a lot this week about the ways we tell stories. Some writers come from a background of oral storytelling, as in gathering round the fire and relating tales. A tradition of vocal rhythm, handed down from culture or place or heritage, crafts their stories almost unconsciously.
Stories are something told, not necessarily something shown.

There's much beauty in this. Much to value.

This past month, I read manuscripts from three talented writers from that oral tradition. They wrote about their home countries, about their lives now, about returning to where they came from, either in real life (memoir) or fictional (novel) situations. The stories are different in content and place but they all use this storytelling manner, this oral tradition, trying to make its rhythmic beauty work on the page.

All of them are skilled with employing imagery--impactful descriptions of place, sensory details that moved me as a reader and brought back locations I'd visited years ago, A moment they described wasn't just about an intimate dinner in a small house nestled in the hills of southern France; it included the extraordinary flavors that meal offered, the heat in the summer air, and the smell of smoke from a nearby fire.

But bottom line: the story was told, not shown. A chapter like this worked. A short article, a short story, also. But many chapters in a 300-page manuscript demanded more variation in this storytelling style, I felt, because a distance between myself and the narrator grew with each telling.

Why is this? A real-live narrator sits in front of you, relating the story at the table we are circled around as we listen. When we remove the expressions and gestures of the storyteller that fill in so many gaps, telling only holds the reader for so long.

Maybe it's because readers know truth about a narrator--I loved him, she hated me, he was boorish, they were trustworthy--by witnessing this truth enacted, rather than told. We believe what we see it demonstrated in literature.

This is where scene enters the scene.

Scene brings demonstration, immediacy, and a way to test narrator reliability. Scene contains "shown" moments, versus "told" ones. Rather than someone telling us "about" an event, we get to be part of it, witnessing it ourselves.

Telling has its place, absolutely. It gives needed distance. Sometimes readers need that distance to absorb what's happened. Also, summarizing (telling in condensed form) a passage of time is more efficient than blow-by-blow details of days that aren't consequential. We don't mind the telling, because it allows us to keep moving.

But when an event really counts, when we're supposed to come away with a conclusion about the narrator or situation, it's useful to consider scene.

I also find that scene brings theater. When we're listening to a great storyteller, theater comes via the person who engages us--their hand movements, their voice, their expressions, how they lean forward and hold their breath before they deliver the punchline. Theater evaporates in telling, after a while, because the narrator isn't in front of us to enliven the words. Soon, we have only the words. We drift.

I don't believe in indiscriminate use of scene. I've encountered that in other manuscripts I've read. One scene after another is exhausting--there's no place to pause and absorb. I also find it feels almost silly to have lots of scenes about trivial events. Why create a scene about the narrator buying his morning coffee at Dunkins? Nothing comes of it. When you write a scene, it has to count. Readers expect something important to be the result of that moment buying coffee--maybe he meets a key person, or he spills it and flubs the presentation at work because of this.

Writers can err on the too-much-scene side as well as too much summary. It's a certain balance. Like music, a rhythm.

A client asked me recently, "How do I know whether to put this moment in scene or summarize it?" I battle with that question every time I sit down to write. I've gained some instinct about the choice, but here's the question I ask, which helps when the instinct isn't handy: Does this moment have clear and important consequence in the story? If so, it's often good to consider scene. Does this moment add some good stuff but not shake the story's world? If so, maybe summary is fine.

And although it's years old, I like to refer writers to this post by Dave King, co-author of that wonderful craft book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. He aptly describes the pros and cons of show and tell, scene and summary.

Click on the link below if you want to check it out.
Dave King's post on show and tell.

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