By Allie Dixon
“Your nonfiction is too fictiony.”
This was the recurring feedback from my first ever MFA graduate workshop as an ex-fiction writer turned nonfiction. As annoying as it was, it forced me to explore what writers and readers alike have heard over and over and over – you’re not showing us, you’re telling us.
I get it. This is a short way of reminding writers to rely on description, specifics, and scene for full reader immersion. But with the way the phrase is often said and taught, with “telling us” lagging behind the “showing” as if it’s the unwanted misfit of craft that we’re supposed to keep locked quiet in the basement, we often learn that there is fault in “telling” our readers any information.
First, let’s be clear about what is meant by “scene” and “summary.” Like a lot of literary jargon and jargon in general, these terms can become vanilla and lose their intended meaning which is part of the reason why writers new and old may forget that “scene” and “summary” are literary tools, each with their own benefits.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary which helps us gain a literary definition of both terms, a scene is “a place or setting regarded as having a particular character or making a particular impression.” It can also be “a sequence of continuous action in a play, film, opera, or book.”
We can think of a scene in literature as “action” with benefits including and not limited to infusing the narrative with detail, tension, dialogue, and description to make it come to life. A scene is often part of a chapter rather than the whole, yet, it’s typically able to stand on its own as it reveals something about the story – think character’s actions, reactions, or dilemmas. A scene is “showing” the reader, not telling them.
Let’s look at some examples.
Ben grabbed the kettle from the burner and gasped. The kettle dropped, hitting the counter, splattering coffee against the white backsplash.
Steam rose as he shook his open palm through the air.
“Shit,” yelled Ben. He was breathing heavily, long inhales through an O-shaped mouth and even longer exhales back out again.
“Hot, hot, hot,” he waved his hand through the air faster.
As analytical readers, we can infer that Ben burned his hand because the kettle was too hot. All the information is there as we move through the scene with Ben, yet, nowhere does the writer plainly say, “Ben burned himself on the kettle because it was still too hot to pick up.” Rather, the reader is able to live through the moment with Ben as the action is broken down into detail, allowing us to empathize or even have a piece of our coffee-loving, impatient selves reflected in Ben which is what makes successful writing.
What would this scene look like as summary? Let’s see.
Ben, thirsty and impatient, picked up the kettle too soon from the burner and scalded the palm of his hand. He dropped the kettle and watched the water splatter, shaking his hand through the air in attempt to cool it down.
What’s interesting here is that the result is the same. A summary, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “sequence of connected events, real or fictional.” Thus, following this sequence of events, we arrive at Ben’s burned hand. It seems the same, but it’s not.
What’s lost in the summary is Ben’s reaction to his burn. We observe that Ben is animated, he curses, we may even interpret that Ben is loud (and who wouldn’t be after lifting a scalding hot kettle with their bare hand?) and deem him impulsive or careless to pick up the kettle without thinking, or wonder if he may be distracted and moving too quickly, or perhaps be a character who is reactive rather than responsive.
The writer could’ve said, “Ben cursed loudly and dropped the kettle on the floor,” so that we’d still experience him cursing with the only difference being that we imagine it for ourselves rather than experience Ben cursing in “real” time. Here, even with this one small scene, we learn a piece of Ben’s character which is revealed to us (shown) and not told. In the summary, we are told Ben is impatient. While the character trait isn’t lost on us, it’s perhaps felt more deeply by the reader as acted out by Ben’s cursing and frantic hand-waving. The scene, or showing, allows space for slower, more methodical detail. This grants the reader access to Ben’s character as well as their own character as anyone would recognize, even empathize, with Ben’s reaction. There is a definite power to making a reader feel rather than informing, though both objectives are equally as important.
The summary, however, is efficient. It moves us along through the plot and we are left understanding the same outcome – Ben got burned. With a mastery and tightness over language (as summary does not automatically exclude literary elements), the summary does still provide the reader with details – Ben is thirsty and impatient – and while the placement of the reader “in” the character (let’s call this reader empathy) is not as present in its summation, the outcome remains the same.
What emerges from this discussion are not only the definitions of scene and summary, but the bigger question as well. As writers, how do we know when to use scene versus summary?
I suppose it depends on the benefits of each as a literary device.
Short story fiction writer and poet Raymond Carver is a master of scene. In fact, scene often relays majority of Carver’s stories with little summation needed. Let’s look at Carver’s craft and dissect just why his scene writing is so effective.
In Carver’s short story, “Are You a Doctor?” we see human drama unfolding as Arnold Breit receives a phone call that changes the course of who he thought he was. The story begins with a scene. Carver writes:
In slippers, pajamas, and robe, he hurried out of the study when the telephone began to ring. Since it was past ten, the call would be his wife. She phoned—late like this, after a few drinks—each night when she was out of town. She was a buyer, and all this week she had been away on business.
“Hello, dear,” he said. “Hello,” he said again.
“Who is this?” a woman asked.
“Well, who is this?” he said. “What number do you want?”
The scene begins with superb tension. Here, Carver sets up his reader to be uncomfortable, just like his protagonist. While Arnold is in slippers, pajamas, and robe, all things comfortable, he is in contrast hurrying to the phone. Pajamas and hurrying are disharmonious. Not only are we uncomfortable imagining man hurrying to a ringing phone in his pajamas, but we find out the caller is not who we expect.
Arnold is a man of routine. How do we know this? Carver doesn’t tell us. Instead, he shows us through the careful language and detail that scene writing allows for. Carver explains that “since” it was past ten – it was not just past ten, it was since – Arnold’s wife would call. The implication here is one of routine. His language becomes even more precise to validate Arnold’s expectation of his wife on the other line; his use of “she phoned” and “each night” enables the reader to interpret this as pattern. So, by the time we discover it’s not his wife calling, we are a hurried man in pajamas whose routine is disrupted.
We are practically Arnold, and we, too, are caught off guard enough to respond with “Well, who is this?” as in “How dare you?” In just seven lines of text, we know so much about Arnold, and, the main conflict is revealed as well – someone is calling who is not supposed to be calling, thus, we are set up for tension and able to witness the evolution of traditional, play-it-safe Arnold.
What happens in fictional scene writing, especially in Raymond Carver’s scene writing such as with Arnold answering his phone, is a sort of literary osmosis. Carver could have easily summed up that scene for the reader, but he chose to use a scene effective in its precise language and detail to allow the reader to absorb and feel instead of factually know (although the scene is written so well, we feel as if we do factually know this information about Arnold). It’s indeed artistic and obvious that Carver is a master of his craft, but why show us and not tell us? Let’s look further.
Later in the scene as we learn that Arnold continues to speak to the woman who inexplicably got his number, a woman who calls Arnold “a nice man” and seems to keep him on the phone, Arnold makes a shift. Carver writes:
“Will you hold the phone a minute?” he said. “I have to check on something.” He went into the study for a cigar, took a minute lighting it up with the desk lighter, then removed his glasses and looked at himself in the mirror over the fireplace.
When he returned to the telephone, he was half afraid she might be off the line.
“Hello, Arnold,” she said.
“I thought you might have hung up.”
Isolated, this scene seems ordinary. But it’s not isolated. It begins with Arnold’s disruption from routine and has progressed to him hoping that this stranger will not hang up the phone. This is indeed a major shift in Arnold’s course of events. Here, Carver gives Arnold the autonomy of preserving this conversation. He asks her not to go. Arnold also physically begins to change himself, getting comfortable with a cigar, taking off his glasses and looking at himself, literally, in a different light (the fire). His fear is no longer disruption of routine, of what he knew himself to be, now, his fear is that this stranger who has inspired him to change himself into no-glasses, cigar-smoking Arnold might be off the line. Still, nothing has been told to us. We are absorbing the slow and tense change through one scene – the phone call – evoked by Carver’s precise detail and language. What’s happening is that we understand the character shift through incremental details rather than summarized facts. Scene allows for plot movement forward but also slows us down. It puts a small, yet significant moment under a microscope for us.
Remember, Arnold didn’t just take his glasses off. Arnold lit a cigar, took them off, and looked at his own reflection before picking up the phone. There is a major difference here as scene allows us into Arnold’s world. Summation of such a small moment not only would deny the reader the opportunity to feel the nerves of change and potential excitement that Arnold is feeling, but it also may risk being dull or happening too fast. Scene and summary function as directional signals to the reader indicating “pay attention” or “move on.”
In this case, we are signaled to slow down and pay attention. We see that the value of scene lies not only in exercising the minutia of literary craft in that we see how valuable careful word choice and detail are to conveying meaning, but also, we see the value of scene in its ability to take one small moment and make it a story as so much of our human experience and drama lie in the “little things.”
Lastly, let’s look at the value of scene for tension building. Something to consider, especially for writers like Carver, is if we are going to put small moments under a microscope, they cannot under any circumstance be dull. Every movement and moment matters.
Here, as Arnold agrees to meet the woman on the other end of the phone, who we now know is Clara Holt, we may be surprised given Arnold’s character at the beginning of the story, but because the scene has allowed for slow and deliberate change to unfold, such as Arnold’s symbolic change of self as well as his positive responses to Clara’s flattery (not featured in this annotation), we believe his actions to be real, true, and nevertheless, tension-inducing, making for a believable yet entertaining story so far.
Let’s examine one last example of Carver’s scene use to sum up both the value of scene usage in narrative and further identify what literary elements create strong scene. Arnold has agreed to meet Clara, and before he leaves her apartment, he surprises even himself.
She scraped her chair back and stood up. Her eyes were a pale green, set deep in her pale face and surrounded by what he had at first thought was dark makeup. Appalled at himself, knowing he would despise himself for it, he stood and put his arms clumsily around her waist. She let herself be kissed, fluttering and closing her eyelids briefly.
There’s so much going on here that would be lost or not as impactful written in summary form. Firstly, we get actual action. The writing describes slowed down, physical movement, rendered methodically so that the reader may move with the characters. Clara didn’t simply stand up from the table. The scene is slow enough to let us know that she “scraped” her chair back. A detail as simple, yet as specific and relatable as this, makes for literary osmosis yet again. In addition, the extremely slow speed of the narrative (think intensely zoomed-in perspective) and Carver’s brief summary surrounding the scenes sends a red flag to the reader – pay attention.
How this scene works, and successful scene writing works in general, is that it transports the reader to time, place, and within the character. Simply put, how many times have we risen from a table and scraped our chair against the floor? Probably hundreds. We know what it sounds like, feels like, looks like. And so we are suddenly in the moment with Clara and Arnold who are face to face as we know from Arnold’s perspective, which is careful enough to notice the color of her eyes and skin, curious for a man who began a scene ago in his pajamas waiting for his wife to call as she always does.
It’s even more curious that he is self-aware enough in this moment to know that kissing her will appall even himself, yet he does it anyway, “clumsily” and “unsteadily.” Carver again shows us that in order for scene to provide the reader with complete transportation of self into story, the language must be exact to elicit feeling. In this case, the steady and purposeful progression of Arnold’s idea of self is not triumphant, as we “absorb” his tension through a general tone of self-hatred and unsteadiness. After all this build up, Arnold’s night is a flop.
The dissection of Carver’s scenes tells us a few key elements that make up a successful scene. Because a scene by nature is often the action or incident itself, its purpose is often to make the reader slow down and pay attention – something crucial must be happening if we’re suddenly examining a moment under a microscope. It is important that we know what color Clara’s eyes are, what her chair sounds like, and that Arnold moves clumsily, dissatisfied with himself, in order to understand the conflict, and Arnold’s desire for change yet subsequent disappointment. In other words, scene is crucial to feeling the life of the story.
Scene use on a macro-level helps the reader to engage and reflect in the human experience within literature (think reader empathy), reminding us how fundamental it is as writers to choose carefully what moments signify change, character revelation, and stimulates our readers to ponder uniting, universal themes. In the case of Arnold and Clara, the reader’s sense of discovery may come through Arnold’s inability to know himself, and despite his drastic change in identity, his disappointment in realizing that he in fact does not know who he is at all.
Or, depending on your read of the story, his disappointment is in the fact that he does know himself all too well. He knows he’ll be upset that he kissed Clara and, despite his attempt to change his life, ultimately Arnold knows he doesn’t have the stomach for it. The emotional connection between characters and reader is made, and thus, the plot can continue forward with meaning as well as the reader’s investment.
The exploration of scene and summary use reminds us that ultimately the goal of writing in either genre is to entertain and connect. As writers, we may stop and ask ourselves – what is the best way we can convey our message? As readers, we may stop and ask ourselves – why? What is it here via scene or summary that I am supposed to be feeling, understanding, and knowing?
While summary writing shouldn’t be shamed or banished as especially in nonfiction it can help to create a reliable narrator, we should recognize that scenes do tend to elevate the reader’s empathy, ultimately reminding us of the point of writing in the first place is to experience the world from a new perspective or, maybe for the first time, see it clearly from your own.