The longer I poke at things I long believed about writing, the more they crumble like a log long on the fire. It is blackened and mottled where the splits in the drying wood have opened up, but still recognizably its former shape. When you prod it with a stick, it falls to ash.
I long believed that the best fiction came in moment-by-moment scenes. These imagery-laden, real-time walkthroughs were both bread and butter. If it wasn’t written in a scene, it must be flat.
Recently, I’ve been questioning this notion, one that I taught religiously to students, and which I suppose I still would, though perhaps more as a technique than as the rule. What I long dismissed as utilitarian and bland can have as varied and vivid an effect as detailed scenes. Sometimes the energy of a story is carried far more in its summaries.
What are scene and summary?
Writing advice often divides prose into these two main categories:
A scene reports the actions of characters moment-by-moment. Close attention to sensory details, setting, momentary thoughts of characters, and dialogue work to make the reader feel present.
Take a look at this brief example from Katie Arnsteen’s short story “Long Ride Home” published by The Barcelona Review:
The car smelled of old vinyl and stale cigarettes. Molly tried opening her window, but the crank was broken. She sliced her palm on the butt of it. An empty airplane bottle of bourbon rolled on the floor by her feet. "Where to?" Randal said, struggling into the low driver’s seat. Molly made herself small, shoulders hunched, arms crossed over her chest. "Old Town." His tongue slid out of his mouth like a dog’s. "You live in one of those big houses?"
This scene brings us right into Molly’s experience with its vivid smells, the verb “sliced” at which we wince as Molly must have, and the rolling bottle with its instant connotations of debauchery. The dialogue carries us in real time forward. If we allow ourselves, we can be there. Arnsteen has conjured up the world.
This technique contrasts with summary, which compresses time. Take a look at this summary from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple:
The first week, nobody come. Second week, three or four. Third week, one. Harpo sit behind his little counter listening to Swain pick his box. He got cold drinks, he got barbecue, he got chitlins, got store bought bread. He got a sign saying Harpo's tacked up on the side of the house and another one out on the road. But he ain't got no customers. I go down the path to the yard, stand outside, look in. Harpo come out and wave. Come on in, Miss Celie, he say. I say, Naw thank you. Mr. ________ sometime walk down, have a cold drink, listen to Swain. Miss Shug walk down too, every once in a while. She still wearing her little shifts, and I still cornrow her hair, but it getting long now and she say soon she want it press.
In this example, three weeks rush by in the space of a few lines. Our view is wide, surveying this time as a whole rather than by piecemeal moment. And yet this writing is full of detail. Walker shows us the key features of Harpo’s wobbly start to running a juke joint. Even dialogue is present, yet it is dialogue divorced from a specific moment, with the feeling that this conversation has replayed many times during these three weeks.
The scene vs. summary debate, and why it’s misplaced
After outlining these differences between scene and summary, a lot of writing advice makes a kind of judgement: that while summary is useful for brief moments of backstory or for jumps forward in time between essential scenes, it is the scenes that bear the story’s real heart. Summary might be used extremely well and for good reasons, but no story can function without scene.
This is what I used to tell my students, and this is how I have tended to operate in my own writing: privileging the scenes, using a when-in-doubt-write-it-as-scene approach, opening and closing stories almost always with this moment-upon-moment scrawl.
I don’t think this anymore. I am seeing writing whose heart is as much in its summary as it is in scene, writing that skates over time lightly and actually deepens the storytelling by doing so. Summary moves through time quickly to show large trends, to show the mood of a month and not a moment, in ways that a close-up scene cannot. Summary is not a thread to tie two scenes together. It is as weighty as those scenes are, as critical for character, and it bares truths that come through more focused in the long view.
Scene-summary hybrid: Call Me by Your Name
Although vague stirrings of this question about scene and summary have clamored in me for some time, they have come rapidly to a head in the last several days as I have begun reading André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. The writing is spellbinding, rushed forward by this unbending desire of the narrator, Elio, and yet there’s hardly a single “scene” as I would normally identify one to be found.
Let’s investigate the novel’s opening paragraphs:
"Later!" The word, the voice, the attitude. I'd never heard anyone use "later" to say goodbye before. It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again. It is the first thing I remember about him, and I can hear it still today. Later! I shut my eyes, say the word, and I'm back in Italy, so many years ago, walking down the tree-lined driveway, watching him step out of the cab, billowy blue shirt, wide-open collar, sunglasses, straw hat, skin everywhere. Suddenly he's shaking my hand, handing me his backpack, removing his suitcase from the trunk of the cab, asking if my father is home. It might have started right there and then: the shirt, the rolled-up sleeves, the rounded balls of his heels slipping in and out of his frayed espadrilles, eager to test the hot gravel path that led to our house, every stride already asking, Which way to the beach?
Is this scene or summary? I’m not sure it’s either. Let’s look:
The passage has some elements of moment-by-moment scene: “I shut my eyes, say the word”–it’s scene, then “walking down the tree-lined driveway, watching him step out of the cab”–another, different scene. It continues with the description of Oliver’s physical appearance, even the muted, indirect dialogue, the question of whether Elio’s father is at home.
And yet, many of the elements we normally look for in a scene are wholly absent. There is no context–no action or description outside of Oliver. Setting is limited to “Italy” and “the tree-lined driveway.” A scene typically shows us the whole moment, of course focusing on its most relevant parts, but in this passage, it zeroes in on the particular details of Oliver’s physical appearance as the only details provided.
The effect of this, interestingly, is one much more akin to summary. Presented without context, the scene is a bare snapshot, nearly devoid of time and place. We know that it was “years ago,” and we get the briefest image of a much older Elio in the act of remembering this moment, and what he remembers is not the full scene: only a flash of skin, these details that in many ways define not this moment alone but the whole period of the novel–it happens thus outside of time. The scene becomes a symbol of the whole summer romance, in summary.
The lesson I take is, the dichotomy of scene or summary is too limiting. This passage orchestrates both at the same time.
The broad view
The term “summary” is problematic. It suggests a quick glance at a thing, the big idea bypassing of all subtlety, something lacking detail. The key here is this connotation, this lacking. Summary is missing the heart. That is simply not so.
I wonder about reframing the discussion of scene and summary, to join it to other discussions about how narratives deal with time. Narratives sometimes run chronologically, sometimes shift from time to time, sometimes narrate in the present, sometimes in the past, and they sometimes move through time quickly, and sometimes they linger, moment-by-moment to carry us through at the slowest possible pace.
I have devoted a long time to learning about scenes and how they work. I know far less about good summary. That will be a new direction for me. All I have so far are inklings.
What do you think? How do you see this distinction between scene and summary? How does this show up in your writing? What value does each bring? Is there a better way to talk about this issue?
Today, Sunday, the seventeenth of May, is the Norwegian national day. It commemorates Norway’s declaration of independence from Denmark in 1814. Restrictions due to Covid-19 mean that little of the normal public pomp will be happening this year–no children’s parades, no brass bands and no speeches. But it’s common to make pavlova to celebrate at home, and at the supermarkets yesterday, almost all of the fresh berries were sold out.
We’ll be staying in Norway for the summer. It was an awful decision to have to make, because it means not being present for my sister’s wedding in June. These realities are hard. We’ll be okay.
Best wishes to you all. Thank you for your reading and your thoughts.