One of the oldest writing adages (and the most frustrating) is show don’t tell. This advice is applied universally, spread widely, repeated so often the words tend to lose their nuance and meaning. Aren’t there times when a scene doesn’t need to be shown? Can’t you share information with your reader without having it play out stroke-by-stroke? You are telling a story, after all!
The thing about “show don’t tell” is that it’s actually talking about writing scenes versus summaries. One is showing, the other is telling. They’re both vital building blocks for any kind of writing.
First up: What is a scene?
In a scene, you’re slowing down the story to show a moment play out step-by-step. A scene feels like a complete building block. It has a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a sense of completion at the end of it, even if it ends in a cliffhanger. Your readers can sense the fading to black, the transition to the next moment in your story.
In a scene, characters interact. Conflict arises. Obstacles are either overcome or run into facefirst. A scene shows. It’s the minute-by-minute playthrough of the story you’re presenting to the reader.
When are scenes useful?
- For important moments in the story. The big character interactions, the conflicts with the antagonist, the ultimate climax at the end. If it’s important for the plot of the story, you should probably make it a big ol’ scene.
- For understanding and exploring characters. Characters love scenes. They get to talk to each other in scenes. They get to interact, to fight, to hide things, to lie, to act suspiciously or secretly or like they’re in love. You show a character’s personality in a scene. You get to hear them speak, watch them move around, witness how they interact with others.
Okay. So what is summary?
Summary is when your story speeds up a little. Instead of showing a moment play out in your character’s life, you summarize — you tell — what happened in a line or two. Dialogue is summarized briefly. Events are glossed over. Time moves quicker. Think the paragraphs at the beginning of Harry Potter chapters when the weather changes and affects the Hogwarts grounds. Summaries can speed the clock a little, set the stage, and mentally prepare the readers for the next time or subject jump the story is about to take.
When do summaries work best?
- When you need to show the passage of time. If you need to jump the story ahead a few weeks, or even skip ahead to the next day, a line or two of summary can make the transition less jarring for the reader.
- When you want to share something that lends the story texture, but doesn’t need to be focused on for an entire scene. For instance, I have moments of my WIP where characters research subjects in the library related to the mystery they’re solving. I don’t need pages of scene-work devoted to them turning pages, making discoveries, sneezing, yawning, throwing pens at one another. But I can write an entertaining paragraph about their research time and move on with the show!
Let’s Get to An Example, Already!
For my Fiction Writing class a couple weeks ago, I had to write a moment for a story first as a chunk of summary, then as a proper scene. I’m going to show my two approaches, and then we’ll talk a little about them.
The Summarized Version:
The Scene Version:
What’s the difference? Which should I choose, scene or summary?
In the summary, I was able to portray the abrasiveness (and possible emotional abuse) of the couple’s relationship really quickly. Bing, bang, boom: This is who these people are, this is the conflict between them, these are Ben’s priorities, and this is what Bradley is doing to undermine them. I can see it working well if there was a larger story going on and I wanted to fill the readers in on the tension between the two characters as a bit of context before moving onto more important things. (This might be a cardinal sin of writing, but I actually really enjoy writing summary paragraphs. I like how they read!)
In the scene version, though, we sit down and watch the uneasy dynamic play out. You get into Ben’s head more vividly, and because you can see Ben’s slight fear of and discomfort with Bradley, I think you feel Bradley’s harshness as though it were actually happening to you.
So, which is better? For this particular story, honestly, both could work. I think the summary is stronger than the scene, but the scene could always go through more rounds of editing. The summary paragraph could lead to a scene. Similarly, that chunk of summary could come later, and the story could open with the scene where Ben’s trying to vlog, putting us right there with the characters, feeling the tension of their relationship right away.
Summary and scene work hand-in-hand to get a story told. No story feels complete without a little bit of each.
A Happy-Writer Writing Exercise
If you would like some writing practice, try this:
Write a paragraph summarizing an interaction between two characters. Or, write a paragraph summarizing the general relationship between two characters, giving three examples of possible interactions. Then, write a scene actually showing the characters interacting. Does one feel more natural than the other? Can you see how they both might serve a purpose for your story?
Comment down below with your thoughts, or even with your scene and summary! Let’s talk about this. Do you prefer writing summaries or scenes? (They can both be pretty tricky, let’s be real!) Let’s chat!
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* Also, in case you’re wondering: WHY YES, I DID DISAPPEAR FOR QUITE SOME TIME. Chalk it up to summer classes, and then fall classes, and then the generally time-consuming activity of having my brain leak out of my ears. I’m hoping to get back into a regular updating schedule, though, so be sure to follow the blog!