Scene vs. Summary

What is scene? What is summary?

I introduced this concept of scenes vs. summary in my post on the four ways to break down page-level craft. Here, in more detail, is what scene vs. summary is all about. And I’ve included some explanation on how the story writer can benefit from knowing this aspect of craft.

A scene is, as Dwight Swain says, a “unit of conflict lived through by character and reader.” That definition has some very intentional wording I want to clarify.

First, “unit of conflict” means that there’s dramatized action surrounding the conflict. Dramatized action is, by definition, not summarized. The audience eavesdrops or watches as the drama happens. You can film a scene.

“Lived through” suggests that we (readers) are allowed to apprehend the situation with our senses. The writer thus gives us sensory, concrete detail to show us rather than tell us what’s happening.

And “by character and reader” positions those two entities in the same space—unaware of what’s going to happen. The narrator knows what’s going to happen. The character doesn’t. In a scene, the situation is dramatized at roughly the same pace as it occurs to the character.

During summary, we speed up. We hear the overview. A narrator can summarize; a character can’t. We went to the zoo last week, and JJ loved seeing all the animals, but he freaked out when he saw the terrarium full of cockroaches. That’s summary. See how those events are not dramatized? See how it lacks sensory, concrete detail? We’re not experiencing those events at the same pace as the character did.

The key difference, then, between scene and summary is that scene is closer to character experience and summary is filtered via a narrator. There is a middle ground, however: half-scene. A half-scene is summary with some tidbits of dramatized, concrete action delivered in “character time.”

Summary Example


When they asked him whether he took the money, Ove said no. They asked again and again, but he refused to tell them what he knew. So they let him go.

That’s summary. We’re not seeing the interaction. We’re not hearing the dialogue. It’s not a play by play. It’s sped up and filtered via a narrator.

Half Scene Example

We could go a step toward scene, and it might look something like this:

When they asked him whether he took the money, Ove said nothing. He stared at the floor, at the scuffed hardwood.

“Ove?” said one of the men in suits.

Ove met his gaze and knew who he was. His dad had mended his car once. A blue Opel Manta. With the big engine. He smiled amicably at Ove and gestured cursorily at a chair in the middle of the floor. As if to let him know that he was among friends now and could relax.

But when they asked him again whether he took the money, he refused to speak. They told him it was foolish not to name the thief. And when that didn’t work, they told him if he didn’t answer, he’d lose his job. And when that didn’t work, they yelled at him. But Ove stuck to his guns.

So they let him go.

That’s a half-scene. It’s still primarily summary, but we might slow down and go in close once or twice.

Scene Example

And finally, here’s the scene:

“You want to sit down, Ove?” said one of the men in suits at last.

Ove met his gaze and knew who he was. His dad had mended his car once. A blue Opel Manta. With the big engine. He smiled amicably at Ove and gestured cursorily at a chair in the middle of the floor. As if to let him know that he was among friends now and could relax.

Ove shook his head. The Opel Manta man nodded with understanding.

“Well then. This is just a formality, Ove. No one in here believes you took the money. All you need to do is tell us who did it.”

Ove looked down at the floor. Half a minute passed.


Ove didn’t answer. The harsh voice of the director broke the silence at long last. “Answer the question, Ove!”

Ove stood in silence. Looking down at the floor. The facial expression of the men in suits shifted from conviction to slight confusion.

“Ove . . . you do understand that you have to answer the question. Did you take the money?”

“No,” said Ove with a steady voice.

“So who was it?”

Ove stood in silence.

“Answer the question!” ordered the director.

Ove looked up. Stood there with a straight back.

“I’m not the sort that tells tales about what other people do,” he said.

The room was steeped in silence for what must have been several minutes.

“You do understand, Ove . . . that if you don’t tell us who it was, and if we have one or more witnesses who say it was you, then we’ll have to draw the conclusion that it was you?” said the director, not as amicable now.

Ove nodded, but didn’t say another word. The director scrutinized him, as if he were a bluffer in a game of cards. Ove’s face was unmoved. The director nodded grimly.

“So you can go, then.”

And Ove left.

That’s a scene. It takes a unit of conflict and renders it with sensory, concrete detail, and allows the reader to watch the events unfold at roughly the same pace as the character. Though longer than the summary and the half-scene, this scene actually moves the fastest, I would argue. By going in close, the author—in this case, Fredrik Backman—allows us to feel more tension and consequence from the interaction.

The Takeaway

Scenes tend to be much better at delivering tension and insight into character. I’ve seen a fair amount of amateur writers who get us to a situation which could be full of tension and suspense, but then they summarize it.

On the flip side, I’ve seen writers who depict scenes that are boring—scenes that have little consequence for the character and zero tension. If you don’t have a situation that can have conflict and tension, you might consider doing three things:

  1. Cut it entirely,
  2. If it’s important to the overall narrative, summarize it or turn it into a half-scene, or
  3. Figure out a way to work more conflict and tension into the situation so that it warrants being depicted as a scene.

Summary is occasionally necessary. Even within a scene, you will have a few sentences of summary peppered in here and there. So you don’t need to avoid summary or feel any shame in including summary. Not everything in a story deserves the closer scrutiny delivered by scene depiction. But with each new revision of your story, you need to be more and more intentional about what you depict as scene, half-scene, or summary.

Look over a recent excerpt or chapter of yours or a peers’ and evaluate:

1. Is there anything in summary that should be depicted in scene? That is, are any of your summarized sections potentially full of tension and revelatory of character desire?

2. Is there anything in scene that should be relegated to summary? If the scene’s boring and/or not all that pertinent to character desire and conflict, ditch it. It wasn’t wasted work–you now know your world and story better–but cut it if it doesn’t belong.

3. Is there any place where a half scene feels more appropriate than a full scene or a summary? A half-scene is essentially just a summary rendered more concretely so that it doesn’t feeling like the dreaded telling that we writers are taught to fear.

Tighten up your stories with mastery of scene and summary. |

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