Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Scene or Summary - How to Decide

Many writers need to learn how to determine when to write a scene or summary. A scene may consist of dialogue, action tags, action/reaction, gestures, mannerisms, exposition, setting details, and character thoughts. A summary is simply a recap of something that has happened. The problem is writers often use a summary when they should use a scene and vice versa. But, how do you know when to write a scene?

Here’s a list of times you should use a scene:
-inciting incident
-surprises, twists, and complications that turn the protagonist’s journey upside down
-love scenes, especially the first time they kiss, or have sex, and any time there’s some sort of change as a result of the encounter
-crimes (committing a crime or uncovering a crime)
-any kind of struggle (physical, moral, emotional)
-turning points
-answers to the story question
-misconceptions and misunderstandings
-subplot resolutions
-black moment

You shouldn’t use a scene to show:

- mundane life events like going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, getting dressed, checking in at an airport, buying a soda, etc…
- how the character got from point A to point B—Sometimes, you need to let the reader assume the character must’ve jumped in a cab, gotten a ride to the station, gotten out of the cab, paid the driver, took his luggage, walked to the entrance, opened the door, entered the building, passed a crowd of people, got in line for a ticket, etc… Instead of writing all of this, simply end the scene and open the new scene wherever he needs to be and whenever the action/reaction is about to take place.

Have you struggled with deciding when to write a scene or a summary? Is it harder to decide when to use a scene or a summary?

For those who missed the post, my class Hook, Line, and Sinker: How to Hook Readers and Reel Them In will start in September. Registration is open and the class is filling up. For more information on the class go to:

Lynnette Labelle


  1. Good stuff here! Um...yeah, sometimes I do include that transition stuff. And have to weed it out later. Then again, a bit of that is necessary sometimes, a well-placed sentence or so, in order for the narrative to flow and not be so choppy. :) Summaries are usually more boring though, and should be used sparingly/with moderation.

  2. Good post. I use to include a lot of transition stuff, but I'm better at it these days. I say something like "she went through her morning routine" and let the reader fill in the details if they need it. I think it gets harder to decide when more time passes between scenes. Like a week or month, or sometimes longer.

  3. I guess I'm stubborn; I like transitions. I don't like two characters arguing about the mechanics of what they are going to do next, and the next scene is them fighting off Ninja geeks in a building somewhere across town.

    So, yeah; I guess I do have problems knowing when too much info is too much. I mean, I don't write a scene like: he walked to the front door opened it, went down the stairs, out the door, hailed a cab, rode 3 miles east and finally entered the reception room of . .

    But: A noise brought Joni and Todd from sound sleep. Downstairs, Todd peeked around the corner and spied a hooded figure rumaging in the knife dwarer.

    I know, I can assume he got out of bed and descended the stairs and . . but the abrupt transition makes me feel he woke up in bed and then materialized in the midst of the action.

    Where is the balance between too much transitional description and an abrupt scene change?

    LOL: overthinking again. I get what you're saying in this post. It does make sense. I'm too thick headed . .


  4. You need to have transitions. The point is to not make a scene out of one.

    Donna: Every book is different. In the example you used, it sounds like something from a suspense novel. In that case, you'd want to draw out the suspense by having the character sneak out of bed and carefully listen for that sound again. You'd focus on how he's feeling like his heart pounding, etc... and what he thinks he hears. Maybe he just thinks it's his cat and dismisses the fear but anger takes over as he wonders what the cat broke now. Or maybe there's a killer on the loose and he's afraid he's the next victim.

    With other genres (something without suspense), you wouldn't focus on what woke him up or the fact that he'd been sleeping. Instead, you’d start the scene with him at the bottom of the stair where he either sees what woke him up or hears it. Then, he’ll react and in his reaction he can be angry about the fact that he had been sleeping until…

    But let’s say you end one scene with the heroine at her apartment and the next scene starts with her meeting her date at a restaurant. You don’t need to show her leaving her apartment, walking down to grab a cab, getting in the vehicle, telling the cabbie where to go, fretting about the meeting as she rides in the car, then paying the cab driver, getting out, walking up the sidewalk, and opening the door. She can fret in the last scene while she’s still in the apartment. In the next scene, she can already be at the restaurant either inside at a table or outside just before she enters the building. She can worry some more either before entering or before the guy shows up at the table. So, you’re still showing her emotions, but you’re not boring the reader with mundane actions to get her from point A to point B.

    Make sense?

    Lynnette Labelle