The writer who deftly uses SCENE and SUMMARY becomes the Time Lord of her fictional worlds. Summary allows the writer to compress and expand time, while scene occurs in a fixed time frame.
Nature is also a Time Lord: Midnight sunsets in Iceland. Photos by Sarah Blake Johnson
While a scene occurs in “real” time, summary can cover a long period of time in a few words.
Typically a scene will “show,” while summary will “tell” as it races through time. As writers we’re often told to show, not tell, but telling (summary) is also an important skill.
Why use summary?
Sometimes the reader needs to understand more about a character, her background, motive, or emotional state or even the history of the setting. Sometimes an overview is needed.
Some stories demand leaps of time: this can be from one season to another season or skipping over several decades.
Summary can alter the pacing of the novel. Summary can also be used to delay or even stop time, making it motionless.
Though counterintuitive, summary can intensify emotion. An insertion of summary, which uses backstory or another event, provides the reader with another view of the character.
A summary is not in the moment, and sometimes it combines many moments. In film, a similar technique is montage.
Montage of geese during different seasons in Germany. Photo by Sarah Blake Johnson
Many films use montage, little snippets or selections of related images or action to show passage of time or change of character. Juxtaposed together, these images become something greater. We can also create a written montage by use of summary.
We use summary when the reader needs information, but doesn’t need to experience the event play by play like in a scene. Summary explains efficiently.
How do we use summary?
It is critical to use vivid, concrete, sensory details. Summary does not mean bland. (A general, “boring” summary is better left out.)
Summary can be as short as a sentence. It also can be quite long, several pages even, though with children’s books a long summary may lose the readers’ attention.
The great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, said his personal motto was “hurry slowly.” Though he wasn’t necessarily applying “hurry slowly” to the technique of summary, that concept will strengthen our writing.
When to use summary?
We use summary when there are many important events and not all the events are needed in full to tell the story.
This means we need to know which scenes are most important. Basically, if nothing happens, but the info is necessary, don’t use a scene. Use summary instead.
When not to use:
We don’t use summary for key scenes or for actions and choices that significantly alter the character’s life or the plot. Don’t use it for any critical turning point, any moment of significance, or crisis scenes. All these moments need to be fully realized.
Summary often creates emotional distance—so don’t use it when the reader needs to be close and emotionally involved, and don’t use it when conflict or confrontation are in the scene. As with any writing advice, this isn’t always true. An example of an emotional summary is below.
And please don’t use summary when the story demands a live action scene. For example, in a romance novel readers expect to see/experience the kiss. The reader does not want to be told, “They kissed last night.” That’s a way to get the book thrown across the room.
Where do we use summary?
One typical pattern in many books is a summary, followed by a scene. Also, summary can follow scene. Summary is useful for pacing. Scene after scene without summary does not give the reader time to rest or digest what has happened. Summary allows for a gentle pause.
Summary can be inserted in the middle of a scene, but if so should probably be short.
What can you do if you have too many scenes and you’ve decided that some aren’t needed in scene format? Write a summary of the scene in as few (or as many words) as it takes and attach that summary before or after the associated scene.
We can also use summary to delay action and create suspense. In this regard, it is a powerful pacing tool.
1 – Summary of Past Events/Action: This is a common type of summary and a way to condense a needed flashback.
This example summary occurs right after Death holds out his hand to Keturah. “And then into my mind came a memory of Hatti Pennyworth’s son, who was dragged by a horse and should have died, but lived. And Jershun South, who went to sleep for two weeks and awoke one day as if he’d slept but a night. And what about my own cousin, who once ate a mushroom that killed big men? Though he was young, he survived. Death often sadly surprised us, but sometimes he gladly surprised us, too.” Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
2 – Less is More Summary: It is easy to overwrite and give too much information. This example of a summary shows how a few words can summarize a situation and how summary can pace the narrative.
This summary appears at the Beginning of Part 2: “The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart. From the lifeboat I saw something in the water.” Following this summary the story moves into a scene of Pi’s interactions with Richard Parker, the tiger. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
3 – Summary of Repetitive Action: This summary shows repeated action over time, a useful technique for skipping over weeks or months.
“Mostly, I missed Mal. I’d written to him every week, care of our regiment, but I hadn’t heard anything back. I knew the post could be unreliable and that his unit might have moved on from the Fold or might even be in West Ravka, but I still hoped that I would hear from him soon. . . . Every night, as I climbed the stairs to my room after another pointless, painful day, I would imagine the letter that might be waiting for me on my dressing table, and my steps would quicken. But the days passed, and no letter came.” Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
4 – Summary for Emotional Impact: This example is of a summary that has greater emotional impact than if written as a scene.
“We drove and ate, music booming and the road going straight, straight, straight, no signs, no stops, just fields and hills forever. Sometimes he looked away from the road just to smile at me. Maybe he was feeling like I was–that the day was enough under the candy-blue sky, the wind swooping into the car and taking parts of us away with it, swirling me and Wilder into the whole big moving world.” Dangerous by Shannon Hale
5 – Summary of Details and Non-Critical Events: This example takes a day of normal, uninteresting events and makes them interesting by summary. This is a transition summary that incorporates the character’s emotions and is an example of a summary that provides pacing.
“Dini spends lots of time riffling through Maddie’s bookshelves and watching Dolly videos, and then some time just sort of staring into the middle distance. As it turns out, the slow pace of the day is almost a relief after the frantic excitement of the day before.” The Problem of Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami
Be a Time Lord
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, calls summary the “mortar of the story.” A story without summary would become too long and an epic of a thousand pages or more. Writing is an art, and so the writer chooses where to use summary through intuition and common sense.
As a writer, you are the Time Lord of your world. You can choose when to either play for hours in the sandbox of scene and when to compress time through the use of summary.
1. Take a scene and summarize it in 3-4 sentences.
2. Choose a book or print up a chapter of one of your stories. Highlight all the sections of summary. What types of summary did you highlight? Are they connective summaries appearing between scenes? Or are they in the middle of scenes? Should any of these summaries be scenes? Are these effective, vivid summaries?
Sarah Blake Johnson