Write Scenes, not Summaries

Sat Oct 14 2017

This week begins a new series on the blog about what I view as the bedrock skill of narrative writing: show, don't tell.

I have referenced this rule of writing several times before (here, here, here, and here). However, have always shied away from giving a full explanation because, well, to be honest it's a big subject and kind of daunting.

But I've put it off long enough.

Part of the reason why show, don't tell (hereafter, "SDT") is so daunting is that there are many ways to explain it. So I'm going to do one article for each of the ones I commonly use with my clients, and hopefully at least one of them will click with you.

This week's explanation is:

Write Scenes, not Summaries

This view of SDT is about portraying events vividly on the page.

Writers often have a clear vision of what events will take place in their story, but less understanding about how to present them. Being unsure, they default to giving quick summary versions. They give labels for the events, as it were, rather than the events themselves.

As a reader, you end up feeling like you're reading the author's notes for a scene, rather than an actual scene.

Here's a pretty typical summary:

Alina went with Teddy to his favorite skate park to see if he was really as good as he said. He started with a simple Frontside 180, just to warm up, then landed a McTwist before launching into a Rocket Air. The tricks kept coming, and he nailed them all. When he swaggered up to her a few minutes later, she had to admit he was pretty good.

You can practically hear the author googling for skateboard trick names, I'm sure, and can imagine the author thinking "Yes, this will really sell the moment."

Well, it doesn't. Because unless you're a skateboard aficionado, those names won't mean anything to you. What's a McTwist? I have no idea. It sounds like the McDonalds take on a French Cruller to me, but in a skating context it doesn't help me visualize anything.

Worse, assuming Alina is the viewpoint character in this scene, it doesn't help me understand how she feels while watching him. The point of this summary seems to be that Alina's opinion of Teddy changes--at least with respect to his skateboarding skills--but the summary does not let us watch that process of change unfold.

And where's the dialogue? Where's the interaction between the characters? What about the setting itself and helping readers visualize the skate park?

To write this as a scene, the author must step inside Alina's experience. Show the reader what she actually sees and hears. That is, don't give us "McTwist", but instead give a descriptive presentation that any reader, regardless of skating experience, can visualize.

And while doing it, the writer should use language that conveys Alina's emotional reactions to all of this. Is she impressed? Genuinely wowed? Does this give her a twinge of attraction to Teddy?

Let's assume it does, and try it this way:

"Here it is," Teddy said, sweeping his arm across the skate park.

Alena took in concrete in bizarre swoops and curves, as if Salvador Dali had designed a swimming pool. Graffiti tagged nearly every surface, a technicolor camouflage leaving the borders and edges indistinct. She stepped up to the steel-edged rim and peered in.

The sheer slope swooped down below her. What looked like gentle curves from afar now gaped, chasm-like, beckoning her to plunge in. To fall.

She stepped away. "You seriously skate on that thing?"

Teddy laughed, soft but good natured. "It's not as scary as it looks. Watch." He took two short, brisk steps, tossing his board as he ran. With well-practiced ease, his feet hit the top of the board and the two dropped, as one, below the lip.

A heartbeat later, he was zooming away, arcing up a curved wall, and kicking off an edge. The board spun around its long axis, twisting like an Olympic diver, before Teddy's feet again found the black deck just as the board hit the ground.

He crouched as the board glided across the park's flat, concrete bottom, pumping straight up the wall and high, high over the edge. Alina watched, transfixed as Teddy hung at the apex of his flight, frozen in mid-air against the piercing blue autumn sky.

Back and forth he swooped, leaping and flipping, turning impossible spirals in the air one after the other. Later--two minutes? Twenty? She could not tell--he rode toward her. Defying gravity one last time, he popped neatly over the park's steel rim, catching his board with one hand.

Sweat slicked his forehead, pulling his wavy bangs into dark, moist ropes. "So?" he asked, his breath heavy and fast.

"That," Alina shook her head slightly, "was amazing. How on earth did you learn to do that without killing yourself?"

What is said and what is left unsaid

I want you to notice two things about that scene.

First, notice what the scene actually says. What, specifically, does it describe to you? It gives you visual details that help you paint the picture in your mind. It describes specific movements--zooming, kicking, spinning--using evocative verbs that, again, help you to visualize. No jargony skating terms in sight. It uses words whose emotional tone mirrors Alina's own feelings during the scene.

Notice what the scene doesn't say: it doesn't label Teddy's skating ability with "good" or "awesome" or any other adjective, nor does it name the emotions Alina is feeling.

Yet, from the scene, how do you assess Teddy's skating ability? What emotions do you perceive her having? Look carefully at the scene, and ask yourself where those assessments come from. Which words and phrases led you to those assessments? I'll bet they were ones that helped you visualize.

Giving words that make readers visualize a scene is how writers seduce readers into convincing themselves of the things the writer wants them to believe. That's how showing works.

Try it!

As an exercise, rewrite or revise this scene to show a different emotional reaction. In the above version, Alina's reaction is pretty positive. She is clearly impressed. Try re-doing it to convey the opposite sense: that she thinks he's a reckless moron who's going to get himself killed, and therefore doesn't really want to associate with him anymore.

That description? That's me telling you what the scene should convey. Your job is to re-write it with different evocative visualizations to show it instead. How will you describe Teddy's tricks to make them terrifying instead?

I'd love to see what you come up with. How many different takes people come up with. Post them online somewhere and put a link down in the comments, or just post your version as a comment directly.

Stay tuned next week for part 2, Let the Jury Decide.