Set the scene

Scene vs. Summary

If you’ve been a writer for longer than five seconds, then you’ve probably heard “Show don’t tell.” And sure, that makes sense when you hear it, but what does it mean when you’re actually sitting down at your desk trying to write?


What is Summary? What is Scene?

Often, you’ll hear this bit of advice when your story or essay is bogged down with too much summary. Your reader is asking to see the action as it unfolds. You can usually tell when a piece of writing is too heavy on the summary because it will feel like the writer is a small child telling you about their day, “And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened…” Not exactly riveting.

Let’s take a look at an example of summary and an example of scene.


When I got home from work, I told my neighbor to stop watering my rosebush. He didn’t listen. They died. We have an awful relationship.


It’d been a long day at work, but as I turned the corner onto my street, my favorite oldies tune came on and I began to cheer up. I was so into singing along with Aretha, I almost didn’t realize that Mr. Keats, my crotchety old neighbor, had his hose directed toward my lawn. An arc of clear blue water soared across the driveway and splashed down on my prize winning rosebush. I jammed my finger down on my power window button, waiting patiently for the window to roll down, then called over to him, “Hey stop that!”

He didn’t respond. I yelled louder and louder. Finally, I hustled out of the car and over to him, “Mr. Keats! Stop!” But by then, it was too late. Water pooled around the roots of the bush, I knew it wouldn’t survive. Every time I pull into the drive, my dead bush welcomes me home. It makes it hard to forgive my neighbor.


So, what are some of the main differences between summary and scene?


  • Time. A scene a unfolds in the real-time of the story. You are with the characters in every single moment. A summary compresses the events that have taken place to move you quickly along the timeline.
  • Setting. The action is unfolding someplace. Your characters are on set.
  • Characters. You can have a summary without characters, but you can’t have a scene without characters, it’d be like watching a stage and the performers never coming out. There are surely those among you who will be at the ready with examples of scenes with no characters, so this is a good time to remind you that setting can play the role of character (If this is blowing your mind, don’t worry, we’ll cover this more in a future post). Something has to happen in a scene or it’s a waste of a scene.
  • Dialogue. Occasionally, you’ll get a line of dialogue in a summary, but a surefire way to make sure you’re writing a scene is to include an exchange of dialogue.



When Should I Use Scene? When Should I Use Summary?

With the way everyone goes on and on about showing and not telling, it can feel like summary is a bad thing. But it isn’t! There is absolutely a time and place for summary. You should use summary:

  • For covering backstory.
  • To remind the reader of something that happened earlier in the piece.
  • When you need to cover a long stretch of time in a small span of text.


Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is considered a classic for many reasons. Do yourself a favor and use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon to read the first 8 pages. The first four full pages are summary. They are richly written summary. This is summary that tells us a lot about the main character and the way he thinks.

At the top of page 6, after the break, the writing shifts into scene, “Then one Saturday morning, everything changes.” This is a very specific day and a very specific morning. We begin to get details about where the main character is and the actions he’s taking as he takes them. Because of the vast amount of summary that came before this scene, we enter into this scene already knowing quite a bit about who this character is. Again, Coetzee is an incredible writer; not everyone can pull off beginning a novel with such a huge block of summary.


Sharpen Your Skills

To continue to sharpen your scene and summary skills, as you read a new book or short story, begin making a mental note or writing marking in the margins whether a passage is scene or summary. Then ask yourself why the writer made that choice (and if it’s the most effective choice).

Still not sure? Let our professional freelance editors offer you some helpful suggestions about scene and summary in your writing.


Image credit: Alexander Dummer

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