“The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.”
— Samuel Goldwyn
Word Count for the Novel: 116, 982 (1356 words removed)
Page Count for the Novel: 438
It doesn’t matter whether your storytelling is scene or summary; just make it fascinating.
When I coach other writers, I draw attention to where they use scene versus summary. In early drafts, many writers are more successful with scene: they capture my interest with the dialogue and sensory description, those cinematic strategies that put us right in the moment. When they launch into long passages of summary—generalization designed to move the action forward, encapsulate several years, or express a theme—they do that “telling” thing rather than “showing.” The effect can sometimes be analogous to a 9th grade essay, an unsure voice that’s lost the prior scene’s momentum, and so plain you’re begging for salt. Or, it can repulse a reader who doesn’t want the telling tone, that 9th grade teacher’s voice relaying information, explaining how you must interpret this story. Huck Finn is a picaresque novel where a young man confronts the racism of his society. “Daffodils” is about the Romantics deification of nature. Ugh—I didn’t come here to read the critics’ interpretations. Give me story!
This type of unfocused telling is normal for early drafts. My nascent stories overflow with it. To me it’s a required part of the process where author tells self, Here’s what I’m trying to do. Make this character a jerk, so I must tell everybody: “Many considered Joe a jerk.” Make that character’s upbringing tragic, so I tell everyone it’s a “tragic childhood.” We weave these “notes to self” throughout the manuscript, notes that eventually must be either recast or deleted.
Telling isn’t wrong as long as we make it interesting. The masters know how to write their summaries such that we can’t avert our eyes.
First, let’s clarify what I mean by summary’s other half (I won’t call it opposite, since they overlap so much in any paragraph and must partner together): “scene.” Think sensory immersion and play-by-play action, to the point where we trot breathless alongside those characters experiencing the moment. Graham Greene gives us a pure nugget of scene at the opening of his novel, The Heart of the Matter, and the reader can infer much from what is shown.
“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark-blue gym smocks engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young mustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.”
Critic James Wood, who quotes this passage in his Introduction, writes, “It is a celebrated opening: a Flaubertian precision of detail refracted through a cinematic lens; we know at once why Graham Greene called himself ‘a film man’” (vii). Wood then does a masterful job of analyzing every element of this brief paragraph to show its stunning craft:
“In a few lines, Greene establishes the terms of his locale as usefully as any movie’s opening tracking shot. He does so with considered authorial reticence, in homage to the notion that fictional narrative should show and not tell. But what, then, is shown? First, the Bedford Hotel and Bond Street. These canonical names, with their pale loyalty to the originals, tell us that we are likely to be in a British colony. Wilson’s shorts tell us the same thing, too, but they have a deeper connotation: schoolboys wear shorts. So this pale young colonial overseer, who looks down on what he rules, is less a master than a child, the white negative of the black schoolgirls he can see on the other side of the street. Indeed, Wilson’s childish knees are pressed ‘against the ironwork’ of the balcony as if confined by the ironwork of a heavy school desk. Or perhaps more sinisterly confined? It sounds as if these absurd knees might be imprisoned” (vii-viii).
Some other interpretations I make from this tiny yet incredibly dense bit of description are the voyeurism of Wilson, watching girls dress while “stroking” his mustache, even though later we find that he’s not truly moved by them, setting up his distant stance toward women. There is also the fact that we don’t know by paragraph’s end what this man dreams except that his dreaming is done while waiting for his alcohol. He is dependent on this drink, and ironic that this yearning should be noted while the Catholic Church rings its bells for Mass.
Note how Wood says Greene “tells” us through showing details. No doubt a writer deep in the trance of creation is not thinking about what his details show; he’s merely rendering whatever comes to him. But no doubt Greene stepped back at some point while drafting to ask himself, “If I begin with such a scene, what does it show my reader?” That critic’s role is one we must all play to ensure our details whisper the same themes in readers’ heads. Check out the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of this novel, because the Introduction alone is a wonderful welcome to Greene as author and a teacher to those of us who would want to add more riveting scene to our work.
Some might argue that showing and telling are of a piece—that it’s splitting hairs to say that a detail isn’t a direct choice to tell us something by the mere fact another detail wasn’t chosen. Yet if I conflate the two strategies I will never learn; I must separate so I can note the same strategies apparent or lacking in my writing.
In contrast to the undiluted essence of Greene’s scene, there is the hybrid storytelling method, scene and summary mixed. Some writers sew more explicit telling throughout moments of scene, like stitching patchwork quilt pieces, and when it’s well done, it’s virtually seamless because the tone and narrative voice are so pitch perfect. Summary can be a phrase or a sentence in this case, but let’s define it as clearly as scene: at its core it’s a bundle of adjectives, adverbs, and abstract nouns that generalize. This sort of diction gathers ideas and events under an umbrella, what I call a “hovering understanding” of how I as reader should comprehend the story. It is the narrative voice speaking up, raising its hand, seeing things via biased lens, whether omniscient, third person limited, etc., guiding readers to think a certain way about the characters and events.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is a book that balances summary with scene, and here’s why it works: who isn’t fascinated by foot binding, domestic violence, and “bed business”? I can’t turn away when someone starts discussing these subjects. In addition, when a topic is foreign and exotic to me, whether how men beat their women in far-flung places or the right methods for gutting a possum, many readers are willing to sit back and take direction. Tell me how it is; I’m listening.
Summary also works when the subject shares a universal truth. The bias of the telling voice doesn’t irritate when the moment can be experienced anywhere, such as a child realizing her mother doesn’t care. Note how the protagonist, Lily, describes the relationship and keeps us riveted:
Even now, after all these years, it is difficult for me to think about Mama and what I realized on that day. I saw so clearly that I was inconsequential to her. I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste to time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home. (12)
Generalizations abound here: “it is difficult for me to think” and “I was inconsequential.” The protagonist reduces herself to adjectives. I am riveted because it hurts to see a four year-old ignored.
The subject isn’t the only reason for this summary’s success: See uses specificity in generalization, seemingly oxymoronic yet required of the art. The third sentence is a series of specifics: “a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years.” Three examples in a row to prove the unimportance of this girl. I am convinced by what is essentially a thesis statement (who says what our ninth grade English teacher taught us was wrong?). I don’t question the narrator, Lily, because her evidence is in. Summary does here what scene can’t: tells us birth order and age as well as cultural status, briefly and neatly.
Then, the excerpt closes with an effective analogy: “temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home.” Analogies, a type of figurative language, generate an immediate image. Like the cinematic strategy of scene, analogy flashes a picture at us. The reader is satisfied that this all is true and trustworthy.
This kind of summary keeps me reading. I don’t even realize I’m getting the blurb rather than the full scene where I could see the mother fully reject the daughter.
I also buy it because guess what? Prior to this summary, there was a brief scene where the mother doesn’t notice Lily’s efforts to help around the house. More evidence confirming the narrator’s argument. Seamless stiching. See could have given us only the scene, but summary is necessary to work in tandem with her camerawork. Her subject is unfamiliar to a modern American reader with different cultural assumptions about the treatment of girls. I need some telling from the professor. Sock it to me; I won’t be offended.
Tastes in reading differ widely, but for me, the writing of See and Greene fascinates. Whether it’s the cinematic immersion of Greene or the show then tell style of See, I’m in. The challenge for us as writers is to make both scene and summary happen as the story demands, and the only way we come to that understanding is by drafting, drafting, drafting. With careful attention, the truth of how each moment will be rendered floats to the surface.
Stay tuned for the next blog, where I condense these points to a checklist of what makes great summary and show how I apply these standards to my own writing.
Greene, Graham, and James Wood. The Heart of the Matter. Penguin Classics: New York. 2004. pp vii-vii.
See, Lisa. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Random House: New York. 2005. p 12.
Writing Goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words and a complete fourth draft ready by the AWP Award Series deadline. I also will be reviewing copy edits for the next book in my differentiated instruction series with NCTE, called Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach, forthcoming in spring 2010.
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.
• Pretend you are making a movie. Your words are like the camera, and they must capture everything you see. You are watching two people argue over something or a scene where a woman’s purse is snatched on a busy street. Describe what happens: what the people do and what they people say. Describe the setting and what the camera sees. The only thing you can’t describe is what is going on inside the characters’ heads.
• Now rewrite the scene from the point of view of one of the people who is telling us what really happened.
• Then write the scene from the point of view of the other person who is also telling us what really happened.
• Which version do you like better? Why?
Secondary and Adult Prompts
• Write a scene where two people are fighting. Write the scene three different ways: from third person objective (fly on the wall, film camera perspective), then from third-person limited (through the lens of one character), then from omniscient (through the lens of both characters and with any other editorial commentary that the godlike narrator chooses to comment). Which scene works the best? In other words, whose story is this, and why?
• Examine a piece of writing you’ve done. Highlight in yellow all the places where you show what happened: sensory description, dialogue, details, facts, and examples. Then highlight in blue all the places where you tell what happened: adjectives, adverbs, abstract nouns, generalizations, and opinion. Does your writing tend to be more showing or telling?