Deb: Scene and Summary

“Beyond this one
absolute – in which all dramatic effects must be achieved by showing – exists a
rich variety of ways in which a writer may balance showing and telling, all of
them equally capable of granting us access to a world where the secret life is
made momentarily, luminously visible.”
 ~Catherine Brady
In shifting from work on a novel (almost done!) to a
nonfiction project (researched and three chapters in), I’ve been thinking a lot
about how scene and summary work.
There’s a certain luxury about scenes in a novel. You can
invent them one after another, whole cloth, and cut them as needed, which I did
in a few spots in my latest novel. That’s not especially efficient, I know, but
sometimes I need to write scenes in order to watch my characters interact, even
if those scenes later end up as backstory or summary or litter in my hard
When you’re writing narrative nonfiction from history,
scenes pose a bigger challenge. You have to snatch every opportunity where
there are sufficient details to construct them. You’ll do some of what Joan Silber calls “sneaky summary,” using details to simulate scene, as here, where
my historical protagonist, Tagish Indian Shaaw Tlaa (later known as Kate Carmack), enters her puberty seclusion:
She would drink
through a straw fashioned from the bone of a swan or a goose so her lips
wouldn’t touch water.  She would keep
busy with sewing brought by the Crow women, but she was not allowed to do any
of the cutting. To ensure she would always be light on her feet, she might blow
on down from a swan. If she rubbed her teeth with white rocks, they would stay
strong even when she was old. But she had to be careful. Spirit power could
backfire if it wasn’t used properly.
Even in fiction, scenes don’t include everything that
happens. “Elements are reduced to the service of the story,” Silber says,
noting that selective concreteness – gestures, dialogue, and sensory details –
make us feel that we were there “for the good parts.” When in The Great Gatsby
Fitzgerald relays through Daisy’s friend Jordan how Daisy got drunk before her
bridal dinner, he uses selective details instead of straight summary to render
the culminating episode:
She began to cry – she
cried and cried. I rushed out and found her mother’s maid, and we locked the
door and got her into a cold bath. She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took
it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me
leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.
Summary isn’t simply the default for when we don’t have the
raw materials for scene or for when we need a bridge between scenes. As
Catherine Brady points out in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, summary can provide another level of intimacy
with characters, allowing us to see how they perceive the world, as in this
from my novel Cold Spell, where
Sylvie speculates on why her mother became obsessed with a glacier:
The ice drew her mother,
and Sylvie was helpless to stop it. Her obsession was absurd, an embarrassment
that Sylvie struggled to justify. Maybe after her father packed his belongings
into that refurbished Ford van and pointed it south, her mother’s head had
swelled with palm trees and beaches and skimpy swimsuits that a woman like
Mirabelle might still pull off.  That big
frozen mass would have butted the tropical images right out of her head. Or
maybe she simply aspired to the cold, regal power of ice.
a natural tension between what’s told and what’s shown, Brady points out, so that
summary can actually set up the stakes for an entire novel.
is the close-up shot, says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. Summary is
the long shot. She adds a third category: musing, offering this sample from the
first page of her memoir Lifesaving:
The way I see it, the
story is about my mother’s lifelong terror of the sea and my father’s
pigheadedness. Or perhaps it is about the absurd pretenses of the British
middle class, particularly the male of that species, whose dignity must be preserved
at all costs. It might be in part about those costs – about the price some of
us paid for keeping up that pretense. It might, too, be about a child’s
lifelong yearning to save her mother. Inevitably, though, as I set out to tell
what happened on the day of the race, the telling is also about the creation of
myth and fallibility of memory. Memory lurking in the shadow of myth, waiting
to be lost in the dark.
Barrington notes that beginning
writers tend too much toward summary. As they gain experience, they tend toward
scene, missing out on the power of summary and musing to build intimacy with
characters, to set up the stakes, and to heighten tension. “Remember it is
scene and summary that make for a good story,” she says, “while musing in some
form makes it layered and thought-provoking.”
Scene and summary are among the many topics we’ll cover in the 49 Writers workshop Description and Details: The Glint and the Squint, which begins tonight.
Try This: From Barrington’s
Writing the Memoir: Pick a summer from your early life and write about it, all
in summary. Then from that summer, write two scenes.
Check This Out: Writingthe Memoir by Judith Barrington is a thorough, practical guide to all aspects
of this popular genre. Even if you’re not writing memoir, her chapters on form,
truth, time, and sensory images are insightful.

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