How to Improve Your Writing Immediately: Write Scenes, Not Summaries

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I had so much fun making fun of my former baby writer self last week that I thought I’d continue the merriment with another post about things I’ve learned from working in the magazine industry. (You can read the first post, about how my obsession with pretty sentences was crushed like a bug, here).

One of the notes I used to see most often on my magazine stories was, SCENE? In other words: why isn’t this a scene what are you even doing with your life?

My tendency is to write summaries instead of scenes. Ex: “I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.” This is fine for my journal entries, but it is not fine for publication.

So what’s the difference between a summary and a scene?

On the Purdue OWL website (a lifesaver if you are like me and find it impossible to remember grammar “rules”) they define summary as writing that:

moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Example: I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.

(I have been going through a Taco Bell “phase” for about the past two decades so if that’s a problem you should just stop reading now.)

1fba7566-091c-4483-9f9e-2df3a84ffc09 defines a scene, on the other hand as:

“a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.”

Example: The smell of cheap meat and hot sauce wafted from the air vents. The time had come. I stepped forward.

“I’ll have two bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra sauce.”

You see the difference? The first version recaps something happening. The second version puts you in the heart of the action.

It’s easy to see the difference when compared side by side, but my first drafts are always chalk full of summary. “He went there. She remembered doing this. She felt this way.” It wasn’t until my top editors started pointing it out to me that I realized I was even doing it.

Most of my revising process is expanding summary into scenes. I like to think of scenes as the scaffolding holding my story up (see last week’s post for more of my extensive housing metaphors). Here’s the thing: every story contains some elements of summary. If every moment in a book were a scene, books would be twice as long.

Working in magazines has taught me that the ratio of scene to summary should be 80/20, and to think carefully about what I choose to summarize.

But before I learned to do any of that, I had to learn to identify summaries in my writing.

How to Distinguish Between a Summary and a Scene:

  1. Ask yourself what happens in this chunk of writing. If the answer is long and meandering “Jamie is walking to school while reflecting on a fight with her mom she had the night before…” you’ve probably written a summary. If you can summarize (LOL wordplay always intended) the action in a sentence “Jamie is fighting with her mom” you’ve probably written a scene.
  2. Is the primary focus of the writing action or imagery? If it’s imagery, you’re wrong.
  3. Determine when the chunk of writing takes place. If it covers a span of time (the fight last night to the walk to school this morning), it’s a summary. Remember: a scene takes place in a specific time and place. Scenes don’t time travel.

So what if you realize what you thought was one beautiful scene full of pretty sentences is actually a summary? How can you fix it? Never fear, this is literally what I do at my job all day and I have lots of ideas about how to kill summary.

How to Change a Summary into a Scene

  • Start with action.

Ditch any beginnings that require reflection, remembering, or exposition. Scenes should throw the reader into something that is already happening. Re-read what you’ve written and identify when the action (the meat of a scene) begins. Cut everything that comes before.

  • Externalize feelings

Description and imagery are vital to scene building, but they should be experiential not observed. One way I fix summaries in my writing is to do a find and replace for anytime I used the words “I/She felt.” This is lazy, bloodless writing. It’s fine for a first draft, but my aim is to root it out in revisions. Instead of writing “I felt hungry so I went to Taco Bell” I will write something like “My stomach was churning. I checked my watch. I hadn’t eaten in a whole thirty minutes. I walked past the open doors of a Taco Bell and the smell made my stomach clench.”

  • Plan ahead

I’ve discovered that one of the easiest ways to skip the summary stage of my writing is to plan ahead. I work out all my summary impulses during the outline process.

One super simple way to do this is with a Pre-Writing Worksheet. Before each writing session (at work and for my novels) I make a quick list. If I’m working on a short story for work I’ll note:

  • Scenes (shocker, I know)

  • Conflict

  • Resolution

Making a list of scenes I imagine taking place in the story helps keep me on track when I actually start writing.

If I’m working on a chapter in a novel, I’ll get more specific.

Here are the five questions I answer before I begin a writing session:

  1. What happens in this scene?

This is where I figure out the action. Writing this down first prevents me from summarizing.

  1. What is my goal with this scene?

This question is about why this scene needs to be written in the first place. What is my goal as the storyteller? If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question, it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

  1. What is the conflict?

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

  1. What is the story outcome?

The action and conflict of a scene should change slightly alter the direction of the story. This question builds on question 2. How is my protagonist’s goal different at the end of the scene? What is her natural course of action after this scene?

  1. What’s happening off the page?

I use this question primarily for writing mysteries. In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that).

Want more info on scenes v. summaries? Here are some helpful links:

Technique: Scene vs. Summary

Scene and Summary: What’s the Difference?

The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene

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