In my previous blog, Scene: Centered on Conflict, I gave examples of how even scenes with minor conflicts help move the plot forward and reveal character. Scenes help a story come alive. But just as night balances day, so summary must balance scene. Scenes occur in “real time” in a novel, and so, even though scenes can be intense and absorbing, they can, if there are too many of them, increase the length of a novel. Because scenes take place in “real time,” they occupy more space on the page and in the book.
Enter summary (also called narrative or narrative summary): a condensed description of what happened. Unlike scene, which shows character and actions, summary describes them. Summary is telling rather than showing. Some books on writing define summary as “everything that isn’t dialogue.” Not a bad way to remember it. Scenes almost always contain dialogue, along with the “he said” or “she said” attributions. Just about everything else is summary.
Writers are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. The decision about what should be presented as scene and what as summary is up to each individual novelist, and so much of the decision depends on the story the writer wants to tell, and how she wants to tell it. All major conflicts in a novel, however, must be presented in scenes — that’s where the drama is, that’s what readers want, that’s what reveals character.
In my previous post I reprinted a small scene from Sound Proof. I’ll do the same in this post on Summary, but with a different excerpt. The paragraphs below are part of Chapter 11. The italicized parts are summary; the boldfaced parts are scene.
After lunch I went off to drum. Not going would offend Kofi, I rationalized. Not going would single me out as strange in a gathering where everybody played music. Admit the truth: I was here because I couldn’t resist the drums.
I caressed the goatskin drum head, savoring its gritty texture. All of us stroked our drums in one way or another, practicing the patterns. I tried a few of the deep, satisfying booms. Left right left right. The volume filled my chest, the reverberations thrummed through my veins. Fingers flattened, I slapped the skin just past the outer edge, producing a higher pitched sound that wakened my brain.
Attuned to life, and in this case death, Kofi taught us a pattern played during Ewe funerals. Only part of the pattern, he explained: the whole pattern was very long and complex. The mourning seemed appropriate, the pattern healing. We had been drumming for maybe fifteen minutes when I noticed Bliss. Like a barefoot waif she stood in the doorway of the pole barn, one foot curled over the toes of the other. Kofi signaled Stop on the drum. We all stopped except Lafayette, who did so only when he realized nobody else was playing.
“Come in.” Kofi motioned to Bliss. “We are playing a song of mourning. You will feel better. Come.”
Bliss hesitated, then selected a drum and sat near Cody. The drumming resumed.
Yesterday I’d left the class feeling invigorated. Today it took prime energy to drag my ass out of the pole barn and up toward the main complex. I was tired and bad-tempered. My head hurt, I could barely keep my eyes open. I sniffed under my armpits. I stank. At the pigpen I stopped, leaned over the rail, and rested. I squinted up at the sun. If I tried to nap, I’d probably steam to death in the tent.
Suzanne was standing outside the kitchen, talking to Aja Freeman. After a couple of minutes, she left Aja and marched my way, practicing her bones, a pair in each hand. One-TWO-three-FOUR, one-TWO-three-FOUR.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, imitating my posture by leaning on the rail. She held the bones in front of her, clicking them softly.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“Easy. You’re hanging with the pig instead of with me.”
I didn’t reply.
“What’s with all these cupolas?” she frowned, studying the one on the pig shed.
“Over-decoration, if you ask me. I’m glad the barn doesn’t have one.” She did something quick with the bones, a series of fast clicks.
“What’s that you’re doing?”
“Triplets.” She smiled in satisfaction. “Not bad, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess Best Bones West of the Mississippi would approve.”
The triplets stopped a moment, then started up again. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“Did you know that Raven had been married to Shelby Stubbs?”
She snapped the bones loud enough to register three counties away. “I don’t like it when you talk to me in that tone, Frank.”
“As if I’m holding out on you, as if I’m a suspect you’re trying to extract information from!” She scowled at me.
“I need that kind of information to do the job I was hired to do.”
“Did you know?” I persisted.
“No!” she snapped, “I didn’t know. I don’t know these people like you think I do. Mary’s the only one I know. What do I care who’s married to who — you know how I feel about marriage anyway.”
Right. Suzanne didn’t believe in marriage, only in living together.
Except that she still wasn’t living with me.
“You need a shower.” She walked away, her body stiff.
“No, I don’t,” I retorted out of pure orneriness.
She turned and threw a bone at me. I caught it in my right hand. She threw another, I caught it in my left, barely. I thought she was going to throw the last two bones, but she turned and marched toward the farmhouse.
I looked at the bones in my hands: gray corners and sky-blue streaks winked back at me.
In Sound Proof this excerpt comes to twenty-two lines of summary and thirty-seven lines of scene. I started this particular chapter with summary but moved into scene quickly. The scene isn’t large, but it is a scene: it takes place in real time, contains conflict, contains dialogue. So there’s variety in the opening of my eleventh chapter: some summary, some scene.
I’m not saying that I regularly write twenty-two lines of summary followed by thirty-even lines of scene. What I do is alternate scene and summary, pacing the book in a way that feels good to me: that is, it feels to me that this is the way my private eye would experience and report the story. And it feels to me that this is the way a reader would enjoy the telling of the story.
For more information on scene and summary as well as other aspects of writing fiction, see Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. Although aimed at mystery writers, the book offers basic advice and examples on writing fiction in general.