Stories are a combination of scene & summary. Even the shortest story contains at least one scene or summary. A scene is when a small span of time is covered in great detail; a combination of what characters say, the actions they take, and any relevant details. A summary is when a large span of time is covered in only a few words.
‘I walked down the road’ summarizes, while describing the houses, and the 3 cars that pass by, would be a scene. Scenes show the audience, while summaries tell. Most stories rely on scenes to carry the weight of the story, and use summaries to transition from one scene to another, but it is possible to convey a story through summary. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is predominantly told via summary, which serves to emphasize the character’s internal struggle, while distancing the audience from the immediate events of the story.
How is the scene relatable?
Every scene should be a combination of unique and common ground. The details of every scene are unique to their story, but good scenes also need an underlying universal experience, often rooted in the relationship between the protagonist and the environment, or the relationship between the protagonist and another character.
Imagine the hero in an action movie is about to press the button that will deactivate “the weapon” and save the day, when suddenly a villain attacks. The hero struggles to reach that button, but the villain won’t let him. The hero has to fight.
On the surface this is a very unique situation that most people have never experienced, but who hasn’t been interrupted in the middle of their work? Who hasn’t told someone “in a minute” only to hear “No, now!” The consequences are not dire, but the frustration, the interference, that’s an experience anyone can relate to.
Beat & Thread
Beats are the phrases that make up scenes & summaries. A beat is like a single note in a melody; when a storyteller strings them together audiences don’t recognize the individual beats, only the flow of the scene or summary.
Threads are what unite beats into a flow. A thread is a conflict or a question. Beats build upon the existing thread until it resolves. Most stories rely on a variety of threads, which come to together as the main plot, subplots, and the personality and history of characters, and to a lesser extent, objects and locations.
Threading the Story
Every scene has at least one self-contained thread, a conflict or plot that is completely self-contained within the scene. Any story that features more than one scene will also have threads that begin or end outside of the scene in question. These are the ongoing conflicts and character journeys which form the plot of the story. One way to recognize the difference between the beginning, middle, and end of the story is by recognizing what percentage of the threads within a scene are beginning or ending.
While a strong scene is important, always remember that most scenes exist as part of a larger whole. Not every scene should be intense and powerful. Instead, use each scene to:
1. Advance the plot
2. Reveal and deepen character relationships
3. Enrich the setting
4. Introduce/explore the underlying ideas.
Ideally every scene, or summary, should accomplish at least two of these goals.
Find three or more books that you haven’t read before, and ask a fellow writer to type up 3 or more scenes/chapters from each book, as separate documents. These examples should include various points in the stories. None of them should be the first or last two chapters. Print out copies of each excerpt, but remove all references to chapter or the book’s page number. Solely based on the writing, try to guess where in the story these excerpts are.
Scene & Beat Types