if “summary and scene are methods of treating time in fiction” (Burroway), so much depends on what goes into scene and what goes into summary, and why. In fact, this is a huge part of the work of drafting and revising, as we figure out what’s at the heart of a story; as we figure out what can or should be summarized, and what can or should be in scene.
Scene and summary are ways of guiding our readers’ attention, too–if we want attention, we “make a scene,” whereas if we need to provide a little context, we use a tiny bit of summary. Burroway includes scene and summary as aspects of setting, which is really interesting to me; if we think about the primary experiences we, as fiction writers, can offer readers, it is an experience of time via immersion in a consciousness (that of an author or character) in a place. And so this makes sense to me, in many respects.
Writing a good scene depends, then, on rendering setting well, describing it enough so the objects and significant details evoke an experience in the reader’s mind (that cold blue from the Slurpee machine in the Adjei-Brenyah, for instance). It’s easy to over-describe setting, just as it’s easy to write a page-long scene that should be a sentence of summary, or vice versa. Scenes are where our readers get to participate in the fiction, but in order to participate, readers need enough context to understand where and when and why we are where we are, and what’s at stake emotionally, as well as what has happened and what might now happen.
The “aboutness” of the story depends, crucially, as well, on its duration. The duration sets the arc of action, the scope, the setting, the choice of what’s in scene and what’s in summary–everything.
This week’s Exercise is to write a 500-word story that has a specific duration and is consciously (but subtly) broken into successive segments of scene and summary (or a mix of the two). Keep our authors’ tips about what makes for vivid scenes and settings as you write, and borrow tricks from our model authors, as well. If you respond to the Chopin, the Adjei-Brenyah, or the Wolff you could write a moment of promised transformation or coming of age for your character. You could start with a tension and reverse, develop, or transform that tension by the end. Or you can chose respond to these authors in another way–via setting, perhaps–or choose another subject for your story.
*remember our work with objects, concrete, sensory details, closure, and attentive language (subjects and verbs close together, few adjectives and adverbs), and remember to start your piece close to the peak action you want to describe. You can choose to mimic the structure, paragraph lengths, and sentence work of the Chopin, Adjei-Brenyah, or Wolff, if you like.
Please do not exceed the length limit, as the limit is present so that all Exercises can receive generous and timely feedback. You will have a chance to expand later, and concision is a real virtue in Sudden Prose! (Most word processing programs offer a “word count” tool, or you can copy-paste the text of your story here, at wordcounter.net, and get a word count that way.)
I look forward to reading your Exercises!
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