Make More Scenes

Make More Scenes

There's one thing that my students do, maybe more than any other mistake. It's oh so easy to do this, and so tempting, and it almost feels like writing a story. But the problem is, it's just not the same.

I'm talking about writing in summary instead of writing in scene.

We all know what a summary is, right? Instead of going to the latest comic superhero movie, you ask your friends what happened. And your friends say, "Well, there was this guy who acquired super powers, and then he had to confront the villain, and then they had a showdown, and then the good guys won." It's fine if you just need to know the plot points of a story. But it's hardly the same experience as the story itself. It's not like you could feel the heat of the explosions or shed a tear at the emotional moments. There's just not much substance there. There's not much to grab hold of. And for some reason, we're tempted to write our entire stories in this half-baked mode.

Here's an example: John walks into his office and starts going through his papers. A few hours later, someone calls him on the phone: his house is burning down. John runs home just in time to see the roof cave in. He is devastated by the loss of his family home.

We learn of emotional things in this description, but do we actually feel the emotion? Do we feel like we're actually there? For us to be emotionally engaged, we need to feel the heat of the flames; we need to see the shock and consternation on John's face; we need to see him weep. Otherwise, it's just a headline in the news. It doesn't come close to giving us the emotional satisfaction that a story can give.

Once you see this, you'll notice it everywhere: at any one moment in a story, a writer is making a choice to convey action to us in the form of either scene or summary. She can let the action unfold in front of us in real time, or skim over it in order to hurry on. There are definitely times when we need to get the show on the road. Conversations can be compressed, and days can be skipped over. But it is the scenes that we will feel something about, so it's crucial that the most important events in your story take place in scene. Otherwise, we'll skip right over the surface and keep going.

How do you make sure to limit summary in your stories? And have you written a story entirely in scene? How about sending it to Teen Ink so we can check out your awesomeness?