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Scene and Summary

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The creative writing world has always been big on "show vs. tell." If anyone made a cheesy action movie about superpowered creative writing teachers, it would be the catchphrase. It's short, easy to remember, and even an elderly gentleman in bifocals and a Mr. Rogers sweater can pull it off with unquestioned authority. Especially if he has superpowers and PTSD flashbacks to the jungles of Central America.

That said, there's only so many time you can tell someone to "show, not tell" in their writing before the urge for face-punching rises. It can be even more frustrating because even the best-wrought details don't guarantee that a passage is showing instead of telling. It's surprisingly easy to veer into "telling with a lot of details" or the dreaded infodump. Plus, there are times when telling is the best technical choice for part of a story.

Instead of thinking about it in terms of show vs. tell, it can help to use scene vs. summary instead. It's a bit like the difference between black and white line art and the final, colored Photoshop image. (That's also an excellent coloring tutorial, btw.)

  • Summary is quick, bare-bones, and tries to convey as much information as quickly as possible. It's the line-art version of the story, with enough interesting details to keep it from feeling boring. If it feels like someone's sitting a bar and telling the story to you, it's probably summary.
  • Scene, on the other hand, is the fully colored version. There's more for the reader to absorb and you have to trust the reader to intuit things that aren't spelled out for them, but done well, scene is much more immersive and at the heart of the magic of books.

So how do you go from summary to scene? The biggest challenge involves a lot of observation and a decent lay understanding of psychology, both things which are traditionally ascribed to "wisdom." It's one thing to outright tell the reader that the main character is in denial:

"You really don't know?" Susan asked. "Alexandre has been bragging about his latest conquest all down the strip. Everyone knows."

Still in denial, Maria didn't respond.

And another to describe the subtle tells and psychological reactions which people in denial are prone to:

"You really don't know?" Susan asked. "Alexandre has been bragging about his latest conquest all down the strip. Everyone knows." The way she mockingly rolled the 'R' in Alexandre's name didn't help.

Maria didn't respond. It wasn't true. It couldn't be true. She looked down at her silver bracelet, a gift. Simple and unembellished, it reflected their timeless connection. Or so Alexandre had claimed.

Was it true?

It doesn't help that most of the time, if you outright ask them, the reasons people give you are only partly true. Understanding others is difficult, understanding yourself even more so, and it helps to be aware of this as a writer. Nevertheless, without this insight, it can be hard to move writing away from summary.

Delan Sarn, Smuggler Extraordinaire

John Ammon, everyone's friendly neighborhood failrogue and creative director at SpoCon, agreed to let me use one of his character backstories as the basis for a more extended discussion. Since it's the heart of the passage, I'm going to work with this paragraph:

The day finally came when the council would test me for my promotion. The first few exams were mostly physical, I passed these with relative ease. Then came the clairvoyance test. An old test, first done with drawings on parchment the test underwent a metamorphosis over the millennia, but the concept was still the same, the Master held up an image facing away from me and I had to tell him what was on the other side of it. In this modern age, the test was administered on a view-screen. Clairvoyance not being my strong suit, I was paralyzed, the Master raised the screen to his face, as the screen crested his shoulder, I could just barely make out the image in the reflection of the window behind his chair, I did my best to hold back a faint smirk, but I know some of it must have gotten through. I confidently named each image as it appeared on the screen, perhaps too confidently. My instructor waited until the test was concluded, then met me outside of the chambers.

It's not bad. It tells you everything that's going on, throws in some salient detail, describes the actions, and gives you a sense of who Delan is. It's also entirely summary. Delan is telling you about his life; you're not reliving it with him. It works as it is, but it could be much more immersive, so let's take it into scene. (I'll try to keep the same tone and character, but I can't make too many guarantees.)

To start off, when opening a scene, it's often works to start with some details, either in the setting or regarding the character, to get readers inside the story. That encourages them to imagine themselves as being there, rather than sitting back as if someone's telling the story to them. If they can personally relate, so much the better:

The day of the trials, I woke up hungover.

Next, let's layer in some connection to the world. It doesn't have to be a "what I did last summer" recitation of why he was hungover, but enough to show the consequences of actions in the world. This helps build verisimilitude, but nothing major. Hints usually work better than infodumps, and I can take the opportunity to reveal some of Delan's personality too:

I'd known the Fizzy Parsec was bad news as soon as the bartender set it in front of me, but even then I wasn't going to back down from a bet. Maybe I should have. Maybe it was too late now.

Now to get Delan to the testing chamber, and layer in some of his troubled history with his training:

Groaning, I rolled out of bed, threw on some clothes and dashed out of my room, adjusting my robes as I went. I had a feeling I was going to be late, and I didn't need any more trouble.

Some environment reactivity and character interiority/reaction to that:

My haste turned heads, but I had important things to do.

Now, let's set up the scene for the test. Since this is where the majority of the action takes place, the setting and major players deserve some more description (and names):

Master Aramus, short and squat, was waiting for me in the circular testing chamber. He always looked slightly annoyed, but I didn't apologize. For one, even though I was the only applicant there, I didn't know if I was actually late. And two, never let them see you sweat. He started lecturing, as usual, on the importance of the Code. Behind him, the floor to ceiling bay windows opened onto the perfect view of the nearby spaceport. The contrails of the ships mixed with the early morning clouds, all of it bathed golden by sunlight.

Then, dialogue and character interaction (which are effective ways to move from summary to scene) and a detail showing that Dalen's more interested and knowledgeable in the ships than the test (for character development):

Master Aramus cleared his throat. "Are you ready?" he asked.

"Of course I am," I said. Behind him, an explorer-class scout launched for sectors unknown. The spaceport was too far away to make out any ships directly, but you can always recognize that kind by the mid-air stall in their contrails as they flip engine modes a few seconds after launch.

"Then recite the Code, please."

I aced it.

Now the cheating, with a bit more description, interaction and interiority:

The second test was an old one, deciphering concealed pictures. In ancient days, they were drawings on face-down parchment. Now, Master Aramus held up a small viewscreen, angled away from me, at shoulder height. Clairvoyance was not my strong suit, and I froze.

As the time passed and I still hadn't even guessed at the first image, the spaceport grew more appealing. The adventure and excitement, lack of stifling rules and no frowning masters to take the fun out of everything. It wasn't like I was going to pass anyway.

But just when I thought that all was lost, I realized Master Aramus had made a glaring oversight. The image on the viewscreen was reflected in the window behind him. Holding back my smirk of relief, I confidently named each image in succession. Perhaps too confidently.

Master Aramus waited until the test was finished, then calmly explained it hadn't been a test of clairvoyance, but a test of integrity.

It takes a lot of practice to master, but hopefully this gives you a better idea of the difference between summary and scene.

Side by Side

The day finally came when the council would test me for my promotion. The first few exams were mostly physical, I passed these with relative ease. Then came the clairvoyance test. An old test, first done with drawings on parchment the test underwent a metamorphosis over the millennia, but the concept was still the same, the Master held up an image facing away from me and I had to tell him what was on the other side of it. In this modern age, the test was administered on a view-screen. Clairvoyance not being my strong suit, I was paralyzed, the Master raised the screen to his face, as the screen crested his shoulder, I could just barely make out the image in the reflection of the window behind his chair, I did my best to hold back a faint smirk, but I know some of it must have gotten through. I confidently named each image as it appeared on the screen, perhaps too confidently. My instructor waited until the test was concluded, then met me outside of the chambers.

...

The day of the trials, I woke up hungover.

I'd known the Fizzy Parsec was bad news as soon as the bartender set it in front of me, but even then I wasn't going to back down from a bet. Maybe I should have. Maybe it was too late now.

Groaning, I rolled out of bed, threw on some clothes and dashed out of my room, adjusting my robes as I went. I had a feeling I was going to be late, and I didn't need any more trouble. My haste turned heads, but I had important things to do.

Master Aramus, short and squat, was waiting for me in the circular testing chamber. He always looked slightly annoyed, but I didn't apologize. For one, even though I was the only applicant there, I didn't know if I was actually late. And two, never let them see you sweat. He started lecturing, as usual, on the importance of the Code. Behind him, the floor to ceiling bay windows opened onto the perfect view of the nearby spaceport. The contrails of the ships mixed with the early morning clouds, all of it bathed golden by sunlight.

Master Aramus cleared his throat. "Are you ready?" he asked.

"Of course I am," I said. Behind him, an explorer-class scout launched for sectors unknown. The spaceport was too far away to make out any ships directly, but you can always recognize that kind by the mid-air stall in their contrails as they flip engine modes a few seconds after launch.

"Then recite the Code, please."

I aced it.

The second test was an old one, deciphering concealed pictures. In ancient days, they were drawings on face-down parchment. Now, Master Aramus held up a small viewscreen, angled away from me, at shoulder height. Clairvoyance was not my strong suit, and I froze.

As the time passed and I still hadn't even guessed at the first image, the spaceport grew more appealing. The adventure and excitement, lack of stifling rules and no frowning masters to take the fun out of everything. It wasn't like I was going to pass anyway.

But just when I thought that all was lost, I realized Master Aramus had made a glaring oversight. The image on the viewscreen was reflected in the window behind him. Holding back my smirk of relief, I confidently named each image in succession. Perhaps too confidently.

Master Aramus waited until the test was finished, then calmly explained it hadn't been a test of clairvoyance, but a test of integrity.

Working Notes

  • Depending on the complexity of a situation, writing might need telling-like details to aid reader comprehension. If a character has consistently unusual cognitive/emotional responses, or things are going crazy, it's probably too much to expect readers to infer what's going on.
  • Summary seems to work best for recaps or large swaths of time that, for whatever reason, don't work well with whitespace scene breaks.
  • Is there a clear break between interiority and telling?