Something is happening in your story, but should you describe it in detail or gloss over everything but a few highlights? So many choices! Well, two choices, specifically, but still not easy to make. Scenes are generally more compelling than summaries, but not everything can be a scene, and picking the wrong moment will seriously slow down your story. Fortunately, we’re here with a few tips on the subject!
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Chris and with me is:
Chris: And then the Mythcreants spend half an hour describing the differences between scene and summary, and when their listeners should use one or the other. [pause] Okay, if you enjoyed that episode, please support us on Patreon. [laughter]
Oren: Hooray! Easiest podcast recording ever.
Chris: Of course that’s all the detail we need, right? We wouldn’t need to make it any longer, or break that down a little bit.
Oren: Look, Chris, it’s episode 420. I have some, um, very legitimate activities to go do, so if you’ll excuse me. [Wes and Chris laugh]
Chris: This time we’re talking about scene versus summary. What they are, how to tell the difference between them (which is not as easy as you would think), and when to use them.
Oren: So what is the difference between them and when should I use one or the other? This is all like way above my pay grade as a content editor. I shouldn’t have to put up with this. [laughter]
Chris: So I like to start with the showing and telling spectrum.
Wes: Oh my, there’s a spectrum now.
Chris: There’s a spectrum, which I have an article, Should You Show or Tell, that actually breaks this down that we can link to. “Show, don’t tell” is a very popular adage and it is mostly true, but it is also very reductive, and it’s hard at first to understand what it means and what it circumstances and all of that. One of the things that’s really useful is that there is a whole spectrum between telling and showing, and you’re trying to hit the right place on the spectrum.
On the telling end, we’ve got really broad abstract statements. For instance, “Marcy and Ted did not get along”, or “Nighttime in the swamp was unpleasant.” Those statements don’t even have a time or place attached to them. They’re just abstract. They’re almost like statements of opinion without anything to support that. For that reason, they actually have very little use in storytelling. Usually you would not make statements like that. There may be some very brief cases for something that’s really unimportant, but generally you would not say those things.
And then on the showing end, we have details that are like watching a movie. So if I said “The spotted red grasshopper rubs its legs together”, it’s like you’re watching a movie where you see a spotted red grasshopper, that’s a visual detail and you watch it taking an action. So it’s very sensory, it has a specific time and place, and you could directly witness those things happening. So that’s on the showing end. When we say “show, don’t tell”, it’s because almost always, writers should be more on the showing end of the spectrum and are erring too much on the telling.
Oren: It’s because new writers tell more than they should, because telling is easier. The cost of it is not always obvious.
Chris: Summary is actually in between those two. You wouldn’t have summary that’s “Marcy and Ted did not get along.” It’s actually closer in some ways to the showing end, but it’s still more telling than a scene. A scene is like, as showing as you can get, to the point where it feels like it’s unfolding in real time. And the story time is roughly equivalent to how long it takes you to read those events happen. Maybe even a little slower. You could read a couple paragraphs of thoughts, give it a little bit of wiggle room, and then assume that the character thought those things more quickly, which means that time is actually slower. So then summary, for instance, as an example: “Over the next few days, Marcy and Ted constantly bickered over who would do the dishes, while the red grasshoppers ate the garden vegetables.”
Oren: I can see there’s a problem here. We need to get these humans out of here so we can eat more vegetables. [laughter]
Chris: And there’s some leeway over how detailed it is, but we now have a much more specific time where it’s over the next few days. Summary could be over the whole year, depending on how much time your story covers. But we have specific events instead of “Marcy and Ted just don’t get along.” Instead, we know that they are bickering. We’re not watching the red grasshopper take a bite out of a vegetable, but we know in general they’re eating the vegetables. So we’re not witnessing it happen, but we’re also much more specific than a very abstract, “My opinion is that Marcy and Ted don’t get along,” right? We have no idea how that opinion formed or what you would have seen to make you think that they didn’t get along.
Oren: The most useful thing I can contribute here is that I would recommend reading How to Choose Scenes for Your Story by one Chris Winkle. Because I was just wondering, I was like, “Man, how do you decide what should go into summary and what goes into a scene?” I was like, hey, hang on. I think we have an article about that. And we do! [Wes laughs]
Chris: We have a couple articles, I have a very old article that’s like, When to Cut that Scene. Despite the fact that it’s not technical at all, it works surprisingly well, better than you’d think. It has like three criteria. Does it have conflict? Is it necessary for the later events of the story? And would the character remember this in 10 years? Basically, the more you fit that criteria, the more it should have a scene. And even though I now have a much more technical explanation for when you should have scenes and not scenes, and I’ll share some of that with you, that’s not bad. When I look at it most of the time, it seems to work.
Wes: With summary, especially how you’ve just kind of described it, it’s just like, “I just need you to have some information and we’re also probably transitioning.” And this is providing context. Because if there is no summary, then everything’s a scene. Suddenly everything has like, equal weight, I guess? Because a summary is a good way to show what is actually not important enough for a scene. So it’s the backdrop that features your scenes.
Chris: Yeah, I’m not going to say that it’s impossible to have a story that’s nothing but scene but no summary. But like every single second would have to matter. And that’s like, logistically almost impossible.
Oren: I mean, that’s generally how very short stories are written. In a flash piece or even a short story, you’re not going to have much, if any, summary just because you’re covering a very short amount of time. The longer your story gets, the less likely it is that everything that’s happening is interesting enough to be in a scene. Have either of you seen 24? Supposedly 24 did that, where there was like no cutting forward, it was all real time. I’ve never seen the show, so I don’t know how they did that.
Wes: I haven’t seen it either, but you are correct, that is how they do the premise. And I do know that in like one season in the 24 hour cycle, he starts and then gets over like a drug addiction. Time is very malleable, I think. [laughs]
Oren: Sounds like they had to do a bunch of fudging to make that premise work. And I suspect you would have a similar problem if you tried to do even something as short as 20,000 words that was all one scene. I think you would start to have trouble. Does your character need to go anywhere? Are you really going to describe their entire walk or are you just going to summarize that they walked somewhere?
Chris: However, I do want to mention here when we talk about that, that a scene is a pretty fuzzy unit. A scene is a grouping of real time narration that’s all the way on that showing end, but it often includes summary. And I would say that probably most short stories still have a little summary in there. For instance, your character starts cleaning, finds a magic item, that’s all real time, then they clean for 10 minutes in summary, and then the magic item does something in real time again. That would be like a very common example of when you would just dip into a little summary during the scene.
Another one that’s real common is, your characters are talking, then they have something to say that’s like, really long that readers already know. For instance, you have one character that needs to update another character on all the stuff that just happened. You summarize that part of the conversation because you don’t want to bore readers with a bunch of stuff that you know already, and then you go back into dialogue.
Often summary is like a whole paragraph or more, but we can also dip into a little bit of summary and dip out again while still basically having a real time scene. I do think that becomes an issue if you really do want every moment to matter, like if it’s a fight scene and people are swinging swords. I just don’t think there’s a lot of reason in fight scenes to go into summary because the whole point is that it’s exciting, and I think that summary adds a little bit of distance, right, where we’re stepping away from a very specific time that is just going to make the fight feel less lethal.
Oren: The reason that you would add summary in a fight scene is if it’s more like a battle. A one-on-one or a two-on-two or something, those fights are probably going to be short. There are some exceptions. It’s possible that you might, if for example you want to have two characters who are so evenly matched that they fight for hours until they’re both exhausted, you’d probably use some summary there because at that point you’re no longer worried about one character dying because the whole idea is that they’re so evenly matched that neither can get an advantage on the other.
Chris: I mean that also doesn’t sound like an exciting fight so much? Not that you wouldn’t have that fight for other reasons in the story. It doesn’t sound like excitement is your biggest priority if you’re going to have a couple characters wear themselves down over a couple hours until they’re exhausted.
Wes: That was one of a few problems with the Man of Steel movie. The fight with General Zod is like half the movie.
Chris: Oh man, that would be exhausting. I would start tuning out.
Wes: It’s just like, what are you doing? It was so boring. It was just, ugh, brutal.
Oren: There’s always a problem with Superman fights where it’s like, can he be injured in these fights? Because they sort of act like he can, but in other sequences it sounds like he’s invincible. When he gets punched, does that do anything? Or is he just getting pushed backwards and now he’s back?
Wes: Yes, it hurts him. Only if he’s fighting Batman. For some reason. [laughter] Batman is the only one who’s figured it out.
Oren: Well, he has a lot of time to plan his punches, okay? But the other reason I was saying why you might engage in some summary is if it’s a very large fight scene, like a battle. In that case, you may need to describe things other than what your character is doing and there are a lot of other people around and it would just be exhausting to describe what they’re all doing.
Chris: Right, if you’re going to break it down into sections, like you would for a battle, battle would normally be more than one scene anyway. Or if you had an instance where you have some fighting and then a character hides for a little while, you might have a reason you want them to hide longer than real time.
Oren: In most cases, if you have a fight scene and it’s supposed to be exciting and fun and you find yourself having to go into summary, that’s a sign that your fight scene has gone on too long. And that you should probably just find a way to end it. If you start with, “And then like three assassins jumped out!” and you describe a bunch of sword strikes and blocks and knife throwing, and then you’re like, “And then four more assassins!” and then you find yourself having to summarize the next four assassins, it’s like, I mean, maybe just don’t have those other four assassins pop out. Maybe just don’t.
Chris: Right, you just not do that.
Oren: Maybe there don’t need to be seven assassins. [laughter]
Wes: Chris said, you know, the summary puts in distance and I would echo and add the de-emphasis that summary really puts on things. Chris’s example of doing the dishes and finding a magic ring and then returning to the dishes. Maybe the first time you’re doing the dishes, you would actually have a scene for that because that’s maybe important to finding the ring, but you’re not going to then spend more time on the dishes. If you did, that might suggest there’s a magic bracelet. Every time you put a scene for something, you are zooming in and emphasizing that so you don’t want to mislead your readers by making them think something is more important than it is. Chris, you also said a character filling another one in, “as both you and I know.” Please do that in summary. It’s not important to go over again! [laughter]
Oren: Can we mention the Expected Trend Rule? Because I really appreciate that rule and a book I’m reading just broke it recently and it was super annoying.
Chris: This is again part of, how do you know that something should get a scene in real time.
Oren: If you end a scene indicating that something is going to happen or continue to happen, you can summarize as long as things continue along the trajectory that you have set. If you end with one side winning a battle, you can summarize as they mop up and maybe capture the next town or something. But if they’re going to suddenly start losing, that needs to be in a scene. You can’t just summarize, “And then they lost a bunch.” And that’s what happened in this novel I’m reading where the fantasy Chinese and the fantasy Mongolians were having a fight. The fantasy Mongolians were winning. We cut away and then cut back later and summarized how the fantasy Mongolians lost? And it was super jarring, I was like, why did you end the fight with the implication they were winning then? That was just really confusing. Why did you do that? I didn’t like that.
Chris: I feel like this is a trick used in children’s stories where they never actually want to show their protagonist losing. [laughter] They just show them winning and then narrate or summarize how they’re actually losing to try to keep up tension. I feel like She-Ra did a little bit of that.
Oren: Yeah, no, She-Ra did do that. She-Ra was like, every time we would see them, they were winning. Mass Effect did that actually. Although it was sort of the opposite. Every time we saw the Reapers, they were totally just destroying everything. But whenever the Reapers were off-screen, suddenly they were being held at a defensive line somewhere. It’s like, I’ve seen Reapers. I don’t think you can do that.
Chris: If we’re going to get a little more technical about what gets a scene, it’s your important plot points. Remember, always be solving problems. You have a scene to introduce a problem. There’s a lot of flexibility how you introduce the problem as long as you show it existing. For instance, in a mystery, do you want to do the body drop or do you want to have your protagonist discover the body? A lot of flexibility there, but usually you would show the problem in the scene because it’s important. And then absolutely, you need a scene for the turning point. That’s one of the most frustrating things is when problems are solved off-screen or not in a scene. The problems should always be solved in a scene.
The resolution, it’s a little bit fuzzier just because the resolution can blend with the turning point. So for instance, if your turning point scene includes a little bit of resolution, sometimes you can just summarize the little bit of extra. So for instance, you have a scene with a turning point where your protagonist catches the villain and then you summarize how the police took the villain away. You don’t necessarily need a scene, even though that does provide the dispel’s tension further and provides a little bit more. But there are other places where you definitely would need to show the resolution if, for instance, your character comes up with a clever idea that is the turning point, but we don’t actually see that defeat the villain. You absolutely need a scene for that. But they can all be in the same scene because arcs come in all sizes. So you could have one scene that has problem, turning point, resolution. Of course, it does matter if it’s relevant to your throughline or your main plot. Often what happens is if you introduce a problem that seems like it needs to be solved and it’s not part of your plot, you usually have to do something about that to set some expectations that this is not part of the plot or else it will feel like your protagonist has to solve it.
Oren: Can we give an explanation of that? I feel like I should know what you’re talking about.
Chris: Let’s say you’re writing a novel and you have what seems like a mystery hook. Like somebody dies under mysterious circumstances. That would seem like something that you should follow up on and in many cases something that your protagonist should solve, right? So let’s say you actually want to solve that in book two. Some cases what you might want to do instead is make the death look accidental and then in book two reveal that it was actually murder, because then it doesn’t look like there’s anything to solve.
Oren: Or have the murder happen and then be like, “Well that was bad but the guy got caught, nothing to worry about.” And then the next book being like, “It was the wrong guy!”
Chris: Or in some cases you could have, “Well, this is a problem, but that’s just how it is. There’s nothing we can do about that.” Because that also doesn’t create any tension because there’s no hope of resolving it. If you look at the events of your story and you’re like, “But all of my story events are things that happen gradually!” That’s something that you have to work on, and this is a reason why it’s good to block out scenes in your outline. If you get to that place where you’re like, “Oh I’m thinking about all of these gradual changes in my characters,” you gotta condense that into pivotal moments to put in scenes. If you look at your outline and you’re about to draft and it’s like, “Oh this stuff kind of happened over several months”, you gotta choose specific moments to represent that.
Oren: That’s like, core issue with training arcs that we’ve talked about, right? Is that you need to create a moment and that’s hard to do because in real life training is a long process of repetitive tasks that give you slowly increasing performance. That’s not fun to read so you gotta find a moment that makes it interesting and give it a turning point.
Chris: So you have one scene to show your character struggling, there’s the problem. Then you summarize along an expected trend that they keep struggling. Then you have another scene to show their breakthrough moment. And then you show them succeeding at their training exercise.
Oren: And then you can have a little bit more summary that does the resolution of, they’re good at training and they’ve got the skill they needed. And then their mentor dies. [laughter]
Chris: We talked about emphasis, a scene is for those really important moments. What gets summarized? There’s a lot of things that get summarized that you can also honestly just skip. And it’s kind of up to you whether you want to summarize that stuff happening or you want to just kind of skip ahead. But a lot of times summary is for things that don’t make a difference to the story but are needed for believability. For instance, if a crime happens and it’s like, okay, people are going to be asking if my character has told the police. That’s not where the story is going, it’s not going to involve the police. I can just be like, “In summary, character reported theft to police, nothing came of it,” move on.
Oren: Is there a good way to tell if I’m encountering something in summary that it feels like maybe it just shouldn’t be there at all? Is that just something I have to figure out for myself? Is there a rule I can apply here?
Chris: If you’re reading, are you getting bored? [laughter] I mean, it’s not uncommon to have summary that’s just too long. Because summary can come in a huge variety of lengths depending on how detailed it is. One mistake that often gets made is that summary is just too long. And when we talked about things happening gradually versus pivotal moments, if you are summarizing things that are easily shown in your scenes, a lot of times you don’t need to summarize them. If I’m like, “Over the next two days, Marcy and Ted bickered,” but then you have a scene of them bickering, did you really need to say that they were bickering? Because we can see them bickering. Is that information necessary? Because most summary is there for logistical reasons, which means that if you take it away, that should cause confusion or reduce the experience in some way. And so if you can cut the summary and it has no reduction in reader experience, then it probably should be cut or condensed a little bit.
There is some things that are somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough for a full scene. Like travel definitely often goes too long, but a little travel summary can be interesting if it’s condensed down enough.
Oren: Yeah, I was also just kind of wondering if there’s a good way to tell how much summary is too much, how many paragraphs before I should probably stop and find a scene somewhere, or is that just like, too context sensitive to try to give a rule for?
Chris: Yeah, that’s a little context sensitive. I mean, I would say that if you have like three paragraphs, take another look. Not because you can’t have three paragraphs of summary if there’s a lot happening that you need to summarize, but that would be worth another examination.
Oren: Chances are just high at that point that you might have too much.
Chris: Chances are significantly higher that you have too much summary if you have three paragraphs of summary.
Oren: When I’m writing summary, should I still be working to try to make my wordcraft all cool and evocative, or is that like a waste of energy and I should just get the business over with?
Chris: You can make it cool and evocative too.
Wes: Do I still have to do that? More work, Oren. [laughter]
Oren: I was hoping for permission to just rush through it. Darn it.
Chris: I mean, if you don’t like writing summary, go for less. As little as you can get away with, but you can make cool and evocative summary. Any words can be pretty. You can pretty up any words you want.
One thing I think is important is talking about how do you recognize when you have summary where you are not intending to have summary, what I call an over-summarized scene, which is when you were trying to write a scene, but you put it too far to the telling end of the spectrum. We get that de-emphasis that Wes mentioned, that distance. It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t have emotional impact. It’s not quite as immersive. If you’re not used to it, it’s hard to tell what’s wrong. It’s like, why don’t I feel anything here? Then sometimes people try to compensate by making it all super melodramatic. [laughter] This does not work.
First is to assess, is it in real time? If the story moves faster than the reading time, it’s probably summary. If it takes you 10 seconds to read, but 15 minutes passes in the story, it’s summary. Dialogue is always in real time. You know if somebody is getting the full double quotes treatment, you know that it’s in real time. However, if you look at your story and it’s all dialogue, sometimes that’s because the narration is summarized and so it’s really short. Dialogue forces you to move into real time, then dialogue takes a disproportionate amount of the manuscript. If you see any character actions that are grouped together instead of stated individually, it’s summary. So if you say, “She punched again and again,” that’s summary. If it’s real time, she should be like, “She punched, then she kicked.” You don’t need to state her body parts. You don’t need to be like, “She punched with her left fist.” [Wes laughs] Important actions like that might not have, “They put out his arm and then moved his hand to grab the doorknob.” We don’t need to get that specific. “Open the door” would be an action. If you start grouping actions together, “he cut five enemies down.” That’s definitely summary there. If it’s in real time, it’s “he slashed an enemy.” One important action at a time.
Oren: What if he just said a devastating insult to five enemies at the same time and so they were cut down by that? They cut down five enemies with this devastating insult, then it wouldn’t be summary anymore, would it? Checkmate! [laughter]
Chris: A scene will often include thinking time. A viewpoint character will have to figure out stuff. They should have time to assess the situation around them rather than things just happening without any thought or calculation going into them. Not that they need to internally deliberate every single action, but oftentimes that assessment in thinking time kind of like, allows tension to build. And the level of detail. “She tried to escape” versus “she ran for the door.” Running for the door is a specific action that you could directly witness. Notice that “tried to escape” is just a step more abstract. It could be a number of different things. “He turned them away” versus “He shook his head and closed the door.” “He shook his head and closed the door” is a very specific thing that you can witness. “He turned them away” again could mean a number of different things. That’s the difference and if you’re finding that you’re grouping actions together, your writing is a little bit more vague or abstract, things happen without time for thinking and calculation, that’s a good sign that you’re aiming too much for summary and you need to dive more into the moment and break it down.
Wes: Role-playing games are pretty fun. There’s a good balance there between what scenes the gamemaster is inviting you to participate in and what they are not. What they’re choosing to summarize. You mentioned travel. You’re not going to have everybody role-play that whole thing. Maybe there’s like one encounter on the road that is important, but that’s it. Otherwise it would be exhausting.
Oren: The tricky part is when you have very active players who want to do their own thing and you’re like, okay, does that need to be a scene or can we just summarize it? It’s like, I don’t know, it depends on what they wanted to do.
Chris: [laughs] Sometimes they won’t let you summarize anything because they want to do more things.
Oren: They’ve got their own ideas about stuff. [Wes laughs]
Chris: Yeah, this is why you need flex time in a game where everything just happens at plot time and you don’t even try to specify days anymore because you can’t move forward in time because the players always want to do something.
Oren: Okay, well I think that brings us to the end of this scene. So I think it’s now time to summarize the ending. “And then he ended the podcast.” [Chris laughs]
Chris: Alright, if you found this breakdown useful, please support us on Patreon. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: Before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First we have Callie Macleod. Then there’s Kathy Ferguson who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
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