One of the basic tricks in a writer’s Bag-O-Tricks is knowing when to use scene, and when to use summary. What the crap does that mean? Well, scene is like a movie: the events are happening in real time, you’re watching them, there we go. It may or may not involve direct dialogue. For example:
Elijah squatted down next to her. He moved a lot more smoothly than he felt like he ought to be able to–his heart was pounding.
“Your house got bombed,” he said.
“I know,” she snapped.
Summary, on the other hand, happens when the implied narrator moves through time more quickly or summarizes events. Sometimes summary comes in the form of exposition. For example:
Nicodemus Tolson, whom Elijah had always known as Nico at school, or Malacode online, would not be the first person you’d peg to be a gang leader. When Elijah met him freshmen year, he looked like a perfectly ordinary, intelligent kid who was the vice president of the Technology Club and who wore suits to school that made him look a little like an Archangel. Over the course of the year, Elijah learned that Nico paid for the suits and most of the luxury in his life with stolen credits, laundered and transferred to an account of one of his online aliases.
I realize that most of Freedomland is scene. I have a habit of writing too much scene when I could be doing creative and interesting things with summary. I think usually scene is more powerful, but I’m increasingly realizing that if everything is scene at more or less the same pace, the prose gets old pretty quick.
When I was writing my NaNoWriMo draft of my next novel, which is called Changeling at this point, I used almost exclusively scene. I was also writing in first person present tense throughout the whole thing, and while there are advantages to first person present tense (sense of immediacy, trendiness), I kind of wanted to throw up in my mouth a little bit after reading over 100+ pages of first person present tense. The novel has multiple viewpoints, which helped, but it was still weird.
I did go to a bunch of fun writers’ workshops at the Richard Hugo House, including one about stretching and compressing narrative time. Then I wrote the following compressed time piece for Changeling:
It was three weeks to the day after I saw my father slap my mother in the kitchen that the two of them sat Cassie and me down in the living room and told us they were getting separating. “Separating,” they said, as if divorce was a dirty word. “You girls and me are going to move out,” Mum informed us casually, as if she were telling us what she’d made for dinner. Moving out, it turns out, meant getting visas and flying across the Atlantic to the Denver International Airport, which is just like the rest of America: large, neon, and full of fat people in a hurry. We got to our new house in January, and it kept on cold and basically shitty until June. We didn’t even get to ski. I had almost stopped hating Colorado over the summer, and even mostly forgiven Mum for ripping us across the ocean, but then it was November, and Cassie disappeared.
See? Mostly summary there, with the wee bitty bit of scene-like dialogue. So much cooler than plain scene after scene after scene.
In case y’all wondered, here are some thoughts that it is both terrifying and gratifying to experience:
- “Fuck, I have to change the tense of my novel.”
- “Wow, I’m writing some stuff for the new novel that’s way cooler than the one I just spent three damn years publishing.”
- “I will probably use maybe 20% the 150 or so pages of novel I wrote last November.”
In any case! I have a revision party scheduled tomorrow with the estimable HJB, so that will be good.