In cinematic terms, a ‘scene’ is a close up where particular details are shown and ‘summary’ is a long shot where the wider context is visible. In writing terms, a scene is a discrete piece of the story puzzle that involves specific action: a point at which things turn, an episode of conflict, a moment of change. Summary builds a platform for scenes and provides context.
If you have too many scenes back to back, the reader may lose the bigger picture. It would be a bit like a screen story told in endless close-ups, without the camera pulling back to the wider view. The long shot also gives the viewer (and, on the page, the reader) breathing space to see the action from a different perspective, to step back from the intensity of the close-up scene.
Summary can be used to set up a scene in time and place, or introduce a character through routine actions and their inner world. It can cover a period of time in the story world, a character’s actions over time, or backstory. It can introduce an idea with relevance to the scenes that follow.
Setting the scene
Summary is commonly used to orient the reader in time and place when you shift location between scenes/chapters and when a period of time has passed between scenes/chapters. This is particularly useful at the beginning of a chapter or section. Often, I see chapters open straight into a scene, and it may not be clear to the reader until many paragraphs later where the action is taking place, or when. I think this comes from a slightly misunderstood piece of advice to writers to ‘get straight into it’. This can work if the timing and location is clear to the reader straight up, or is revealed within a few paragraphs, but if it’s not obvious, the reader can be distracted from the scene itself, trying to work out the where and when it is taking place.
Having a date and/or time stamp at the top of a chapter can be useful to help a reader track location and time passing, but it does not always serve as a replacement for summary per se. Sometimes you only need a line or two to help orient the reader. In her novel Grown Ups (Penguin 2021), Marian Keyes has quite a large cast of characters and the story has multiple POVs. At the top of the chapters there is often a sentence or two that signals to the reader when and where the new chapter takes place, and names the POV character. For example:
One hundred and eighty kilometres away, in the Lough Lein hotel in County Kerry, Nell read from the laminated mini-bar list…
In setting up a scene in time and place, summary can also establish a character by introducing their regular routines. Here’s an example from the opening of the short story ‘The Lost Wedding’ by David Brooks (Australian Short Stories, ed. Carmel Bird, Haughton Mifflin 1991).
Miss Jennifer Cooley lives amidst tall trees on the edge of town with a dog that hoards things under the house and a cat that stays mainly on the roof, where it stalks sparrows. In her rather sequestered existence in between, Miss Cooley is hardly ever seen but for the one morning a fortnight when she does her shopping, and for one week each year when she does a kind of spring cleaning, during which time she sometimes hangs upon the line out back a faded wedding dress in the style of twenty years ago.
Fast-forwarding story time
Summary can cover long periods of story time in which not much happens, or in which transition or change takes place over time. Sometimes writers are tempted to skip over chunks of time altogether, but often it is helpful to at least acknowledge that time has passed.
This example from John le Carre’s Absolute Friends (Hodder and Stoughton 2003), charts change over time:
For the next ten weeks Mundy sleeps on Mustafa’s sofa bed in the living room with his legs hanging over the end while Mustafa sleeps with his mother, keeping a baseball bat beside him in case Mundy tries anything on. At first Mustafa refuses to go to school, so Mundy takes him to the zoo and plays ball games with him on the moulting grass while Zara stays home and lapses gradually into a state of convalescence, which is Mundy’s hope. Bit by bit he assumes the role of secular father to a Muslim child and platonic guardian to a traumatised woman in a state of religious shame.
Introducing focal ideas
Summary can also be used to introduce an idea that will underpin scenes that follow, a theme that the writer wants to draw attention to. Here’s an example from Charlotte McConaghy, Once There Were Wolves (Penguin 2021):
There are languages without words and violence is one of them.
As a teenager Aggie was already a language genius. She spoke four fluently and was learning several more. But it was not only spoken languages that she understood; Aggie knew, too, that there were some that did not need voices. By the time we were ten there was the sign language she’d invented so we could communicate privately. She’d built a world for the two of us to live within and we would each be perfectly happy never to leave it. When we were sixteen she started learning the language of violence; she broke a boy’s nose, and she did it for me, as most of the things she did were for me. (42)
All the examples given here occur either at the beginning of the work, top of a chapter, or start of a new section. They prepare the ground for the scenes that follow. The examples also illustrate how a writer can show the reader the characters and the setting using specific details, and tie these details to the unfolding drama in a way that complements the tone and pace of the narrative. These are not chunks of background information, they are carefully crafted paragraphs, well mixed mortar artfully laid to hold individual scenes together.
Getting the right balance of scene and summary can take multiple drafts. Keep checking your mortar mix, ensuring it isn’t too dry or too thin, but serves its function effectively. And apply it in just the right amount.