Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scene vs. Summary or: It’s Time for Show and Tell

Scene vs. Summary or: It’s Time for Show and Tell
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman

Every beginning fiction writer is advised to “show, don’t tell.” But what does this really mean? I can remember attending a writer’s conference early in my career, listening to a renowned author repeat this adage as the most important thing every writer should know. Of course, I thought, nodding sagely, that makes perfect sense.

Then I left the conference wondering, How do you do it?

Scene vs. summary. Personally, I think the words “show” and “tell” are a bit too abstract for most beginning writers to grasp. I’ve heard many writers swear that they were “showing” when, in fact, they were doing the exact opposite. Perhaps the terms “scene” and “summary” would be more helpful in understanding the difference.

Summary. Let’s begin with the concept of summary (telling).

Suppose you have a friend who attended a very exciting party. On Monday morning, he tells you that Tom drank too much and embarrassed his wife, Jane. He complains to you about the waiters, saying that they acted snooty. Your friend laughs about Rick’s funny stories but can’t remember the details of them. In essence, he is summarizing (telling) the events at the party. Since you didn’t go to the party, you didn’t see what Tom did to embarrass his wife. You didn’t experience the waiters ignoring people’s drink orders. You didn’t hear any of Rick’s jokes. Your job as the writer is to bring the reader to the party. How do you do this? You write scenes rather than summary.

Scene. A scene can be as short as a single paragraph or as long as several pages. It should contain at least two of the following elements:

Direct action
Internal monologue

Of these, narration is the least dynamic component of fiction. When a writer depends too much on narration, he risks falling into the trap of summarizing (telling) rather than creating active scenes (showing). Narration either sets the scene or functions as a transition for time or place. As a transition in time, your narration might look something like this: “It took Sarah three hours to clean all of the blood from the carpet.” This is an example of transition in setting: “Peter left his grandmother’s house and returned to work.”

Note that I have not listed description as an important component of a scene. When description isn’t incorporated into action, dialogue, or thought, it becomes static, presenting itself as the deadly “telling” creature. For example: “She wore a red woolen scarf.” (telling/summary) Compare this to the more active: “Wrapping her red woolen scarf snugly around her neck, she braved the stinging wind.” (showing/scene)

From summary to scene. To view the scene vs. summary process in action, let’s take a look at two examples of the same event. The first version is summary (telling):

“Judith was furious when Richard asked for a divorce after almost fourteen years of marriage.”

Now, let’s convert that to a scene (showing):

“Richard was still blabbing on and on about ‘spending some time apart’ and the need to ‘find himself,’ but Judith had stopped listening long ago. She found herself staring at his teeth. They were ugly teeth really, big and flat like a beaver’s teeth, and the handlebar mustache he had grown last year only accentuated their hideous shape. Richard truly had the mouth of a nasty rodent. How had she missed such an important detail in almost fourteen years of marriage? She looked down at her hands, aware that she had shredded her paper napkin into small bits of confetti. She wondered if her fingernails could accomplish that same result on Richard’s pasty cheek.”

Do you see the difference? We know exactly how Judith feels without ever once telling the reader that she’s angry. Some writers mistakenly worry that showing creates wordiness, but a fully realized scene will always contain more words than simple narration. And a scene with action, dialogue, and emotion is much more compelling than a summary.

Just for fun this time, I will close this with a homework challenge. The following is the summary of a scene that appears in the novel, The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. See if you can find the scene it summarizes. (Hint: The scene appears in the chapter called: “JING-MEI WOO: Best Quality.”)

“After dinner, I helped my mother clear and wash the dishes. I tried to compliment her on the dinner, but she dismissed my compliment. I guess Chinese mothers are like that. I asked her why she didn’t eat her crab, and she insisted that the crab was spoiled. She told me she knew the crab was bad before she cooked it. I asked her what she would have done if someone else at dinner had chosen the spoiled crab, but she didn’t seem concerned. She smiled and said that she knew I was the only other person at the dinner who would have picked the bad crab because everyone else wants the best quality for himself.”

Happy writing! And don’t forget to invite your readers to the party!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.

Visit Ms. Gassman at her Web site:
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