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When to use summary instead of scene in your story

I like author and writing mentor Martha Alderson’s definition of story.  Alderson, also known as “The Plot Whisperer,” says that, “Story is conflict shown in scene.”

In order to have the most impact, our stories should be written mostly in scene—in moment by moment detail. But we should also remember that a story made up entirely of scenes can inject too much conflict and exhaust the reader.

Summary is a place to rest. It’s a place where time is compressed. It’s tells the reader the events that aren’t important enough to show in detail.

Remember that saying you’ve heard a thousand times, “Show, Don’t Tell?”  The showing part is what happens when we write in scene. The telling is summary.

When should you use summary? Here are a few places:

  • When you need to move quickly through time;
  • When you want to sum up the circumstances of the characters;
  • When you want to sum up a sequence of events over a set period of time;
  • When you’ve had several intense scenes in a row and you need to let the reader pause or rest;
  • To provide information that you don’t want to put in a scene;
  • To fill in a character’s back story;
  • To set up the next action;
  • To show motive;
  • To create a transition.

When using summary instead of scene, ask yourself why you’re doing it. As writers, we should know why we are making a creative choice. Are you writing summary because you’re being lazy and it seems too hard to write it out in scene? If the answer is yes, then make yourself sit down and write it out. There is a place for summary in every story but choose wisely and consciously.

To learn more about writing scenes and discovering your plot, I recommend Alderson’s book “Blockbuster Plots: Pure & Simple.”

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