Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Elements of Fiction: Scene and Summary

Elements of Fiction:  Scene and Summary

However structured the memoir or fiction, certain skills need to be employed in order to make the most of the story element. Two important aspects of moving through story are scene and summary. The object is to intersperse scene and summary.

 Scene:  close-up, using dialogue          Summary:  long-shot, telling or narrating

 Scene is a close-up camera zooming through a kitchen window.  Two characters are talking at a table. The camera goes up really close to each face while the audience hears each character speak.  In other words, it’s showing.

Many of the details of the kitchen are lost with this camera shot, maybe a blurry blue pitcher on a sideboard behind one of the speakers can just be discerned; perhaps there is a vague impression of yellow walls and an open door, but in this scene it is the speakers and what they say that matters.  Only selected details are in sharp focus.

In this short span of time, we slow down the narrative to something more like the actual time it takes for the scene to unravel in life.  Because the writer is going in close and because there is no need to crunch a lot of time into a small place, we can give the dialogue, note the expressions, reactions and movements of the speakers, as well as sounds, sights, smells, etc., in the immediate environment.  We can go inside a character’s head and give the reader thoughts that aren’t expressed in the dialogue.  We may describe the facial expression of one character.  We select details to render in close-up.
         Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red.  The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving.  Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door.  Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat.

         Her mother chid her for coming home late from school, and said she would have to keep her at home the dark winter days.

         “Why mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet.  The lamps not lighted, and my father’s not home.”

         “No he isn’t.  But it’s a quarter to five!  Did you see anything of him?”

                                              --DH Lawrence, Odour of Chrysanthemums

To write good scenes, we need dialogue. Don’t be tempted to add spice by way of attributions.  These are the “he saids” and “she saids,” which are sometimes needed to make it clear who is saying what.  Since the usual practice is to use a new line each time you switch speakers, attributions are likely to be needed less often, use them only when the conversation would be unclear without them.  Don’t shore up the dialogue with descriptions such as “he snapped” or “she mused,” or phrases such as, “he said in an endearing tone.  In the best writing, that kind of information is revealed in the dialogue itself and the reader gets to know the speakers through their own words.  Move your story along with dialogue that adds to your depiction of the characters.

Summary is the long shot – the one that pulls back to a great distance, embracing first the whole house, then the street, then the neighborhood, and then, becoming an aerial shot, it takes in the whole city and maybe the surrounding mountains too.  The view can include a huge number of details, but all seen from a distance, none apparently more important than another. 

Translated into literary time, these two approaches represent difference paces.  We use the summary when we want to cover a lot of time in a few paragraphs; it gets us from the end of one scene to another scene a year later, and on the way there it fills in information that is important to the continuity of the story. It can accelerate the tempo of a narrative, hurrying us through events that might be uninteresting or distracting. In other words, it’s narration or telling.

Summary can also offer rich, sensory detail and is certainly not merely a way of moving time along between scenes.

          I started school in the middle of hurricane season, and the world grew suddenly bigger, a vast place of other adults and children whose lives were similar, but whose shadings I couldn’t really explore out of respect and dignidad.  Dignidad was something you conferred on other people, and they, in turn, gave back to you.  It meant you never swore at people, never showed anger in front of strangers, never stared, never stood too close to people you’d just met, never addressed people by the familiar tu until they gave you permission . . .  In school I loved the neat rows of desks lined up one after the other, the pockmarked tops shiny in spots where the surface hadn’t blistered, the thrill when I raised my desktop to find a large box underneath in which I kept my primer, sheets of paper, and the pencil stubs I guarded as if they were the finest writing instruments . . .
                                                                                                                                                                       --Esmeralda Santiago, When I was Puerto Rican

 Because this is summary rather than scene, the verbs refer to an ongoing set of actions that took place over time.  Although this summary gives many interesting details it never moves into a scene, which would require the writer to fix on one particular day within that period.
The best story is interspersed with scene and summary, making it an engaging and interesting read.

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