We’ve had a lot of great book submissions lately, but several that we thought showed promise all let us down in one specific area: They lacked the ability to switch between scene and summary. In the case of our most recent slew of submissions, this was accomplished by extensive blocks of dialogue.
Other times, we get submissions where there isn’t any dialogue for pages, maybe even chapters.
Books need both. If you don’t have dialogue, then it’s all summary and nothing more than a 300-page book report on a book that has not yet been written. If it’s all dialogue, then it’s a poorly written script for a movie.
Books are not like movies. Movies, TV shows, etc. are all scene based. However, in writing, we have to include summary in order to move the plot along. We don’t have those visual clues when reading like we do when watching something. So writers have to give setting clues. Book scenes are generally much shorter than those in movies. They are little vignettes punctuated very often with snippets of summary.
The trick with writing a book is figuring out what should be summarized and what should be shown in a scene. It is very difficult to decide this. So to help you decide, we’ll start by giving you the elements of what a book scene is:
1. The timing in scenes slows down.
While a summary has basic information and can cover vast amounts of time, a scene covers a very specific time period, like two to three minutes, and includes lots of details. What may have been one scene in a movie may be ten scenes in a book.
Let’s say you have a faster action sequence. You know that it probably takes about fifteen minutes for this to happen in real life, but that’s too long for a book scene. We don’t need to see every gun blast, or hear every word spoken between the characters. So slow down once in a while to get the important dialogue, update the reader on the small things, and then zoom back out to something like, “The fight continued while our hero valiantly defended his position, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before the storm trooper would eventually advance.”
And then, back to another scene.
“Then, from behind him, Luke heard the familiar gravelly voice: ‘You need some backup, kid?’ Luke angled his lightsaber and with renewed vigor deflected the blasts to his left and right. ‘I thought you’d never come and I’d die on this godforsaken planet!’ Han blasted a few storm troopers and said, ‘Brilliant idea, kid. Let’s die here together. It’s not so bad. Born here myself!’ Then the chirping voice of a woman joined. ‘Are you two just going to chat and have a tea party, or do I need to come up with a plan?’ Both men groaned.”
Then we would go back to summary.
“Leia issued commands, and they were able to break through the storm trooper blockade safely.”
We could, of course, have approached that differently. Luke getting saved initially by Han could have been summarized and Leia’s plan could have been the scene. It depends on what’s more important.
It’s also a great idea for when you aren’t exactly sure of the details of an escape. Frankly, I wrote that bit in two seconds and didn’t want to spend the time actually breaking through the enemy line. The summary reminds the reader of a previous pattern: Leia always has a plan and always saves the boys’ necks, so we don’t need to see that again. That’s a very important note there. If the reader has seen it more than twice already, it’s probably best to put it in summary.
Okay, now to a few more details regarding what makes a scene.
2. It must have dialogue, which must come in late, leave early, and tell something about the character, the setting, and/or the plot. You noticed that with my previous example, the scene piece had dialogue. If you are interested in learning more about dialogue, we’ll go over that in another blog post. Promise.
3. It has to be framed on either side by summary that sets the scene up. These summary pieces should connect the dots between the scenes. If you feel the need to use line breaks, you need to do better at linking the scenes together with summary. Either that, or you have too many characters...but that’s a blog post for another time.
4. It should either:
a. be a main plot point like a pinch, plot turn, etc.,
b. set up a main plot point,
c. engage in a try/fail cycle, or
d. show the growth of your main character in some other way.
It should not have been shown more than two times already in other scenes, unless it’s super-duper important for plot progression.
As a developmental editor, I spend a great deal of time working with writers on their ability to move between scene and summary. Even if the book isn’t just a summary or giant blocks of dialogue, this seems to be one of the areas writers struggle with most. And it’s something I think is under-discussed.
We have a million plot formulas and tropes that can help you get over writer's block, plan your story, etc., but not show you how to plod through and figure out which little parts will help you keep the reader’s attention. At first, learning how to transition through scene and summary is tedious, and it will often feel stilted for you.
It’s not usually evident what should be in scene and what should be in summary when you are writing your first draft. No writer, no matter how good, is able to get it spot-on the first time. Rewriting is an important part of writing a book. And so many people feel like, since they spent a year, or two, or maybe even just a month for NaNoWriMo, writing the first draft of the book, “Shouldn’t it be done now?”
Or, alternately, the author in question struggles with perfectionism and nitpicks and the book never gets done in the first place. If that’s you, learn from the example of a good friend of mine. It took her more than ten years (on and off) to get her first draft done. And then, bless her heart, I ripped it up and had her rewrite vast portions. But that only took her a couple of months. So, if perfectionism is your problem and you’re stuck in a rut, send an email to contact (at) thinklingsbooks (dot) com, and we’ll walk you through the twelve-step recovery process.*
On the other hand, if you feel the need to work with a developmental editor, you can reach out to me or check out my personal consulting website: www.jeannieingraham.com. [Update: currently unavailable.]
*Each step consists of: JUST WRITE AND FINISH. ;D
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