Saturday, January 23, 2010

SUMMARY: Geektastic

Dear Heather and Meg,

I loved Heather’s recent post about scene where, following a terrific quote by Jordan Rosenfeld, Heather made the point:

scenes are moments of action, shown to the reader, not told. Each scene has a purpose (the Goal), conflict (Obstacles) and an ending (the Disaster).

This got me thinking about juxtaposition in a short story or a novel. Is it always scene after scene after scene? Is there any kind of glue that holds those scenes together? While closely reading M.T. Anderson’s story “The King of Pelinesse” in Geektastic I looked at each discrete chunk of story to see whether they met the definition of a scene as described by Rosenfeld and by Heather. Was each a moment of action shown not told to the reader? Was there a clearly discernable purpose? A conflict? An ending?

It became clear to me that a story is more than just a string of scenes. In between those moments taking place in the now I saw that Anderson interspersed bits of summary, telling rather than showing. These summaries felt like an opportunity for the writer to take a breath and either reflect on events that have led to the current moment, or set up what is about to come.

I looked to see what Janet Burroway had to say on the subject, and here is what I found in her book Imaginative Writing: Elements of Craft. Burroway talks about the difference between scene and summary, and the roles each play in a story. She defines these two elements thus:

A summary covers a relatively long period of time in a relatively short compass; a scene deals at length with a relatively short period of time. (p. 276)

This makes sense to me. Scene is in the moment, it is now. It is the actual unfolding of events. Summary, on the other hand, is just that, a summation of what has led to or resulted from moment.

Burroway explains that summary is often necessary, and is useful, but is not essential. Scene, on the other hand, is essential, because it is scene where users have the opportunity to experience the story as it is happening to the character. She points out that an error beginning writers make is to rely too heavily on summary, denying the reader the opportunity to experience significant moments through the characters’ senses.

Anderson uses scene far more than summary (no beginning writer, he!). Even when flashing back, a typical use for summary, he gives just the briefest summary to set the scene, then drops the character into the moment, allowing the reader to be there with him.

Here, on page 118, Anderson uses summary to set up a bit of backstory about how the main character came to be in Boothbay Harbor:

I had looked up the address on a map, and I had drawn a little version of it on a piece of school paper. It didn’t look like it was far. I walked out of the town center, and along a road that led past ridges of some kind of needly tree, like pines or firs or spruce. I don’t know the difference between them. A couple of years ago I tried to find out the difference from a book, but all the pictures looked exactly the same.

Consider the differences between this and a piece of a scene:

I pointed my foot at a wicker chair, and asked if I could please sit down.

He said, ‘Kid, I’ve got Caelwin tied to a pillar, with a pterodactyl shrieking and coming to feast its unholy beak upon his numbles.’

I went over to the wicker chair anyway and sat. I stared at the floor. I felt very weak. (p. 120)

The scene is here and now, we are with him watching things unfold through his eyes and experiencing his emotions. It is showing. The summary covers a greater passing of time—it is telling.

Characters grow and change through the action that takes place in scenes. Summary, on the other hand, is used as a stepping stone between scenes, a mechanism to bring the character to the time and place when those changes will occur, with the reader fully present.

StorySleuths Tip #41: Use scenes to show action and emotion happening in the now, and summary to describe (tell) occurrences that transpired over a longer period of time.