It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of scenes in writing and reading narrative—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. And if you are writing a stage play or a screenplay? Well, then, scenes are everything. In his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field says that “good scenes make good movies.” Good scenes also make good novellas, novels, and memoirs, but scenes alone won’t give you a graceful and sturdy narrative arc. For that, you need a little mortar, some grout or glue, and—yes—you need spacers.
Summary serves an essential role in the making of the narrative arc. In the first place, summary provides a means of moving time forward without a loss of momentum. It’s inevitable that we share the information that’s necessary but not significant through the means of summary. And orienting information before a scene is one sort of summary. But summary also serves as mortar between scenes, holding them together.
Sequential and circumstantial summary
Two different kinds of summary serve this purpose, and Janet Burroway offers a wonderfully succinct description of the two in her textbook, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She distinguishes between sequential and circumstantial summary by the way they organize time. Sequential summary offers an efficient if compressed accounting of a particular period of time—as in a day, a week, or a month—organized in the order in which the events occurred. Here, then, is a summary of the events from the scene in the grocery store: You entered the store with the express purpose of completing the task in less than ten minutes and, by jogging down the aisles, managed to collect all five dinner ingredients in six minutes flat, only to get stuck in line with a couple of flakes.
Circumstantial summary is another matter. It’s not about a single trip to the store; rather, it provides a glimpse of the way these trips generally go. (Sometimes life is a bit of a blur, one day passing pretty much like the one before.) Because humans are creatures of habit, because we live on a planet that circles the sun, many of the moments in our lives can be encapsulated by circumstantial summary. Here’s a quick example: During the summer months, you rush for the produce aisles, but post-Halloween, you will avoid that section of the store altogether. It depresses you to see the pinkish sheen on the faces of shrunken tomatoes, and there’s nothing you hate worse than rubbery broccoli.
Okay, enough of my goofy grocery store examples. Here are excerpts of each sort of summary from a novella by Jean Rhys entitled Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys wrote Sea as a revisionist response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Published in 1966 and set in the Caribbean, Rhys’ novella is an essential text in postcolonial literature and women’s studies. These excerpts come very early in the book and both describe the narrator’s mother.
She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn’t speak distinctly. I don’t know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually. She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all.
My mother usually walked up and down the glacis, a paved roofed-in terrace which ran the length of the house and sloped upwards to a clump of bamboos. Standing by the bamboos she had a clear view of the sea, but anyone passing could stare at her. They stared, sometimes they laughed. Long after the sound was far away and faint she kept her eyes shut and her hands clenched.
Examples are easy to find. You will want to make use of both kinds of summary in your novella, and the best way to better understand how and when they are used (and what sort of work they do) is to watch for them as you read.
I once worked with a graduate student named Mary Beth who wrote scenes the way some people dance and other people cook—gracefully and intuitively. She had an accessible prose style and a devilish sense of humor. And her subject matter was exotic, at least for me. She wrote about rodeo life, and she knew her stuff first-hand. The holey jeans Mary Beth wore to class weren’t a fashion statement, and the caked mud on the heels of her cowboy boots had made its way to New Mexico by way of Texas. Most often, her scenes took place in travel trailers, at rundown bars or out in the middle of a pasture. Everyone was bucking or being bucked, flying off a horse, out of a comfortable bed, or into a jail cell. Never a dull moment.
One night, Mary Beth called me. She’d been writing all day, and this one scene in the barn had expanded to twenty pages. The protagonist was on the floor of the horse stall with her mare, who was foaling or trying to foal. The vet had yet to arrive, and…“I can’t seem to end this,” Mary Beth told me. She sounded exhausted, so caught up in the unfolding scene that she no longer knew where to find the exit. It happens. If we’re lucky, it happens to all fiction writers.
“Jump ahead,” I told her. “If in doubt, jump ahead, and not just an hour or two. Jump ahead to the next day or the next week.” I went on to explain that she could decide later, during the revision process, where the scene reached its natural conclusion.
Most often, the jump-ahead is referred to as gap, and in contemporary fiction, gap is delineated by white space. Sometimes, a writer designates white space for a short gap, one that moves the narrative briefly forward and uses white space and an asterisk or some other symbol to signify a leap in time. Can’t you just imagine Mary Beth’s first novel, those leap forwards marked by stylish little horseshoes? I like that idea.
Convincing the audience of the “realness” of characters is one of the main objects of scenes. As readers, we gobble up scenes, seduced by the sense that the lives of these book people are as real as our own and that what is happening to them is happening in real-time, as we consume it. The necessity to turn the pages comes from our sense that the scenes we are imagining will determine the fates of the book people we’ve come to know and care about. To compel readers to lose themselves in our prose, we must be able to construct scenes that seduce and convince.
In an interview with Susan McInnis, fiction writer Ron Carlson explains it this way:
…[I]f the story is about a man and a woman changing a tire on a remote highway…you’ve nonetheless got to convince me of the highway, the tire, the night, the margin, the shoulder, the gravel under their knees, the lug nuts, the difficulty getting the whole thing apart and back together, and the smells. You must do that. But that’s not what you’re there to deliver. That’s the way you’re going to seduce me…after you’ve got my shirt caught in the machine of the story and you’ve drawn me in, what you’re really going to crush me with are these hearts and these people. Who are they?
Sharon Oard Warner is the author of two novels, a short story collection, an edited anthology of stories on AIDS, and the craft book Writing the Novella (University of New Mexico Press). Warner’s essays and articles have appeared in The AWP Chronicle, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Studies in Short Fiction, Studies in the Novel and others. From 1999–2016, she founded and directed the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, one of the largest such gatherings in the country. In recent years, she has been studying and writing feature-length screenplays. Warner is Professor Emerita of English Language & Literature at the University of New Mexico and Co-Chair for the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.