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Making a Scene: Summary versus In-Scene Writing

Should you stay in the moment, or should you pull back to a summary of generalities? A good scene stays close to a viewpoint character and sees it through their eyes, so staying in the moment really helps.

Do you get tempted to wander off into general reflections and explanations? Read on to find out more about summary versus in-scene writing.

You may well know all about the importance of giving your reader a sense of closeness to the viewpoint character – they can be all the more immersed in the story and invested in what happens to the character if they get a sense of experiencing the scene alongside them.

So if your viewpoint character were standing in her kitchen making a cup of tea and talking to her mum, is she likely to spend long stretches of time thinking about how she normally spends Saturday mornings playing golf with three friends, or what kind of house her mum lives in, or the story of her dad's long illness? She might have some brief moments thinking of these things, but not long stretches. If you write long explanations or summaries of things you think are relevant, the reader will have a sense of having lost touch with the scene and the character in it. Of course, some of these reflections can add depth to the scene, and give some meaning to the events unfolding. But I'd say it's best if the reader doesn't feel as though they've left the scene for a long time before getting dropped back into it again.

I'll give you an example from my recent reading. I won't name the famous author, but he would begin a chapter by placing a character in a scene. Each chapter in this book was in a slightly different time than the one before – six months or a year had passed, for example, and lives had moved on. The setting was the Second World War, so the situation evolved fairly rapidly. Before we were more than a couple of sentences into the scene, he'd go off into summaries – what had happened to the evacuees, what rationing was like, which type of soldiers were present in the town. We'd dip back every page or two to the scene, which gave it a hugely disjointed feel, almost as though the scene itself didn't matter. And in many cases, I'd say it didn't – nothing was happening in the scene that was particularly relevant to the story. In one case, the character was making a fish pie, so every page or two we had a description of the next stage of the pie-making. It was irrelevant – it was just there to tie the summary to a time and place. I had a strong sense of not knowing why I should care about any of it, because I had no sense of really knowing the thoughts, wants and needs of the character.

I once read a book by Joseph Conrad, and was amazed at his ability to wander away from his dialogue for pages on end. I'd forget that there was a conversation happening, then another line of dialogue would appear from nowhere. Bizarre.

In both of these examples, the author sometimes even took the reader to another scene, before taking them back to the first one again. Talk about confusing.

So I'll advise giving it careful thought before you give a lot of space in your writing to summary and generalities. And just because there's an exception to every 'rule', I'll give you an example of someone who doesn't always follow this, but it works.

My example is Ian McEwan. In Machines Like Me the protagonist spends long stretches reflecting on his earlier life and how he came to buy the artificial being. And it works, because in these reflections we're getting deep into the protagonist's psyche. He's analysing why this came to be important to him, not just giving us the facts. We're closer to him as a result.

Never forget about that narrative distance!

Further reading

I talk about narrative distance here.

My blog about showing and telling is here.

Emma Darwin's excellent resource has this piece about writing a scene.

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