When a Scene Just Won't Do

Posted by Martha Alderson, M.A. on

Most of a writer's genius comes in the art of the finesse. How finely you craft your project before you let it go is up to each individual writer.

As a plot consultant, I developed the Scene Tracker Kit to help writers finesse their scenes. A story comes alive at the scene level for the audience, be it a crowd or an individual reader. Well-written scenes allow both the observer and the reader to viscerally take part in the story. Some people rather enjoy a more distanced, intellectual challenge. Most, however, engage on an emotional level, too.

Each scene has a plot structure of its own. The scene shows the character step toward a goal or desire. The move forward causes an equal or better effect with conflict and tension. The scene ends with failure or an unanswered question, or a cliffhanger, something that entices the audience deeper into the story.

Moment by Moment

Scenes show moment-by-moment action that causes an effect on the characters' development as shown through his/her word choices in dialogue, facial expressions, next moves in response to the action, gestures, and every detail down to the breath.

Plot covers a specified period of time, from one moment in the centuries past and those to come. The Blockbuster Plots line of plot tools explains plot at the overall story level and at the scene level, too. In both cases, the focus is on scene.

But, when stories take place over a long time span, one scene cannot always cause the next scene to unfold. In order that the story not become episodic, the use of summary becomes paramount. Cause and effect soothes the audience and makes the story best spent in scene.

But, there are times when a scene just won't do.


You've heard the writer's mantra: "Show, don't tell."

A scene shows.

Summary tells.

A story made up entirely of scenes can inject too much conflict and become exhausting for the reader or moviegoer. Summary is a place to rest and make transitions. Instead of every single moment played out in scene, time is compressed with summary.

Summary narrates quickly those events that are not as important enough to the overall story line to show in detail. Summary relates the events in their sequence or tells how things were during a particular period time. The use of summary is helpful in moving the story forward quickly. That way you, as the writer, can focus on creating scenes to show the moments that are the most important to your plot.

Movie and Novel Examples

Always a sucker for a good historical story, I have chosen two epics to serve as examples for the use of summary. Charles Frasier begins Thirteen Moons in Circumstantial Summary. Director Sofia Coppola begins Marie Antoinette in Sequential Summary.

Circumstantial Summary

"There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nighland, where all the ghosts of man and animals yearn to travel. We're called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there. A sorrowful path. And maybe not exactly Paradise at the end. The belief I've acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I've always enjoyed a journey.
"Cloudy days, I sit by the fire and talk nothing but Cherokee. Or else I sit silent with pen and paper, rendering the language into Sequoyah's syllabrary, the characters forming under my hand like hen-scratch hieroglyphs. On sunny days, I usually rock on the porch wrapped in a blanket and read and admire the vista."

The opening of Thirteen Moons by Charles Frasier is an example of Circumstantial Summary. The general circumstances are described from the main character's point of view. The audience learns what his life is like now that he faces death. The main character gives us his take on the approaching "Nightland." The second paragraph tells us in summary the circumstances of how his days unfold.

Sequential Summary

The movie Marie Antoinette begins with a series of snippets like short summaries, some lasting only seconds.

The first snippet is of Marie as a 13-year-old girl waking up one morning. Next snippet she plays with her dog while being dressed by her attendant. Next, her mother tells Marie the gravity of the honor being bestowed her. Marie then sets off on a journey. Friends appear along the way. The betrothed is introduced. Marie and friends sleep on the carriage. They play cards on the carriage. They sleep.

The opening of Marie Antoinette relates in sequence the events that happen over a specific period of time, but compresses them. This is an example of Sequential Summary.

Summary is telling and sets us apart from the action. However, in both examples, the use of authentically historic sensory details infuses the summaries with life and immediacy.

Note of Caution

In Marie Antoinette, Sophia Coppola creates Thematic Significance and forces a comparison between the story and the rock star mentality of today. Yet, both Thirteen Moons and Marie Antoinette overuse Circumstantial Summary and Sequential Summary both. Summary, no matter how well written or directed, ultimately distances the audience from the character.

In each of these examples, when we do get an intimate peek into the character, it is in scenes that flow one into the next through cause and effect. However, this happens in few too many scenes and far too short a time.

Yes, summary makes the time pass and history unfold quickly. The audience observes life during a specific time span and truly feels that time. But, ultimately, something is lost at the Character Emotional Development level when stories spend more time in summary and not enough time in scene.

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