Questionable: When Is A Scene Not Necessary?

Sam asked:

How do you decide which events deserve full scenes, as opposed to narrative summary?

The quick and dirty answer is anything that arcs character and moves the plot should be done in scene so that the reader can see it and be part of the journey. Anything that doesn’t arc character and move the plot should be summarized as briefly as possible or just cut.

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about summary. Summary means condensing information down to the shortest possible description instead of playing the event out in front of the reader. Summary covers a lot more time than scene does because unless you’re writing a novel that takes place in three hours, you’re not writing in real time. There’s that eight hours of sleep your characters get every night. The time they spend in the bathroom. The time they spend at work doing routine things. Taking out the trash. Filling the car with gas. Unless any of that has a direct bearing on the story–the bad guy comes up and flicks a match into the tank while they’re filling it–you don’t need to write it and in most cases you don’t even need to summarize it.

That’s because most of normal life is an unmarked state, the stuff that usually happens, so the reader will assume it for you. You write, “The next morning, Jane left for work . . .” and the reader assumes Jane had a good night’s sleep because you didn’t say she had a lousy one. A lousy night’s sleep would be a marked state, and marked states have to be put on the page because they’re counter to the reader’s assumptions. This can be a little difficult if the marked state is something the POV character is used to (which makes it unmarked for her) because you’ll have to find a way of putting it on the page even though the story’s in her POV and she’s not noticed it. If your character gets up every morning, leans out her window, and shoots a pigeon, that’s unmarked for her, but marked for the reader, so you’ll have to write something like, “Jane leaned out the window and shot her morning pigeon and felt immensely cheered that she got two with one shot; that hadn’t happened more than twice in the ten years she’d been picking them off.” If after that all she does is get dressed, eat breakfast, catch the bus to the office, take the elevator to the twelfth floor, say hi to her secretary, sit down at her desk, and hire an assassin, your next sentence can be, “An hour later, she was still cheerful as she sat at her desk and surveyed the vita of the latest applicant for the assassin job.” I’d guess that 90% of all summary is showing time has passed. Do it in a phrase, not a sentence. It’s a marker, not part of the story.

So the rule of thumb is, if you can take a scene out of your story without damaging your story, just summarize it in one sentence or cut it and move on.

35 thoughts on “Questionable: When Is A Scene Not Necessary?

  1. I like it. (I come from a long line of academics, so I’m cursed with a congenital tendency to over-explain. Knowing what to summarize, or cut, is hard for me. And there are times when I’ll go ahead and write out a scene that I know I’m going to have to remove, just so my brain will let go of it.)

  2. What about character arc? Do you think of the whole process of establishing the character’s personality and way of being just through action? Or primarily through action?

    1. To oversimplify, you establish character through:
      Internal monologue (use sparingly)
      What other characters say or think about the character.
      If it’s omniscient POV, what the author-narrator says about the character.

      Action is the strongest characterization device. All the other things in that list can be and often are lies, but our bodies tend to tell the truth.

      1. If you were ordering these from strongest to weakest, would it be…?
        Internal monologue (use sparingly)
        What other characters say or think about the character.
        If it’s omniscient POV, what the author-narrator says about the character.

        1. Action is character. It’s always first.
          After that, the next two are probably equal, then what other characters says.
          If it’s in omniscient POV, what the author says comes first.

  3. There is a heavy trend now in romance (from some very popular writers) where there is a moment of action (he enters the room) and then a page of internal thoughts. Then a reaction (she glares at him because she’s now decided he’s a jerk) and then another page of internal thoughts. Sometimes two, three pages of internal thoughts. It’s so common, that I’m kinda shocked when someone gets on with the story. Some of my favorite contemporary writers have slowly devolved into this pattern, and as a reader, I feel cheated. I just read an older romance from a very popular writer–picked it up on sale online–and now I remember why I had liked her so much. That one moved–things happened, they made choices and they had bad consequences and more things happened… and I was riveted.

    From the really good writers, these long long long moments of internal thinking can still be somewhat entertaining, but it’s telling the story, instead of showing it, and ultimately, when the book is done, there was very little actual plot there, very little story. And so much of that internal thinking could be compressed, because the character is going on and on about the same thing — he just walked into the room, for the love of God. Unless he’s holding a gun when she thought he was there to ask to marry her, there’s just so much to think without it simply being an angst-fest.

    1. I agree, that’s awful writing for any number of reasons.

      1. Nobody thinks that much if there’s somebody else in the room. We forget how aware we are of other people, especially if we’re engaged with them. If you’ve just walked into a room or met somebody for coffee or however the scene starts, you’re engaged with them, you’re speaking to them, so while you’ll have brief thoughts, they’ll be focused on the conversation, not ruminating about the past or the future or taking a detailed survey of the person in front of you. The minute you spend that much time showing what a character is thinking, you’ve not only kneecapped the story, you’ve kneecapped the character because that’s just not realistic.

      2. What is the other character doing while your character is thinking all that stuff? Waiting patiently? Getting really annoyed because he or she is being ignored? Calling the EMTs because your character is glassy-eyed, starting into space?

      It’s almost always lazy, self-indulgent writing. As Toni pointed out, it’s telling the story instead of showing it, and frankly, telling is a heck of a lot easier. But unless you’re in omniscient mode and you have a voice as vivid as Terry Pratchett, it’s just a lot less interesting.

  4. Gary Provost used a formula called story events. For example, one story event (action) per every six lines of exposition, internal monologue, etc. It varies with the author, but it keeps me honest. Translate story event into physical action. Of course, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it is a nice little tool for gauging when you’ve left your characters doing nothing on the page. Jenny, I wish we could clone your brain. I’ve never heard of marked and unmarked states. Boy, will I be using this tool. Fabulous.

  5. I am almost finished reading “Bet Me” for the umpteenth time and enjoy it every time. As I read I think, “How does she channel such smart, funny, interesting characters?” Well, you do. I write also, but my writing is a Volkswagon compared to your Lexus. I realize that being a writer with “instant” bestsellers is right up there with actors becoming stars overnight after years of practicing their craft. I am very fortunate to have you be my role model. Thank you for all your books and the hours, days, years you put into them.

    1. Thank you.

      But don’t compare yourself to anybody, ever. You’re the only person who can write like you do. I’d be a Volkswagon compared to your Lexus, which is why I never compare myself to anybody. They’re them, I’m me.

      Although, if I had to pick a vehicle to be, I’d think of myself as more of a vintage VW camper or maybe a vintage Class B Airstream.

  6. Great ‘summary’, but I have a question. Georgette Heyer does lots of summaries. In some of her books, they take about as much page space as scenes do. She still reads well and sells after all those decades. Isn’t here a contradiction? Summaries are allowed – but only sometimes? Only to some writers?

    1. Speaking purely for myself, I endure those summaries, I don’t enjoy them. I pretty much am always thinking to myself that it’s the price of admission when it comes to her stories (and I don’t always feel like what I get in return was worth the payment).

    2. I think the final rule of writing is “whatever works.” There will always be writers who break supposed rules and still enthrall readers. In those cases, it’s interesting to figure out why it works, or what else is working in the novel.

      Nevertheless, long stretches of narrative can make for a slow pace and lead to skimming.

    3. Anybody can do anything; it’s your book.
      I love Georgette Heyer,she’s one of the reasons I wanted to write romance, to be the twenty-first century’s Georgette Heyer. But I just assigned my class Cotillion, and they had a hell of a time getting through it, in part because it is so dense, written in omniscient viewpoint. So while Heyer (and Austen before her) can write romance in omniscient POV, modern readers tend to respond better to modern storytelling.
      But again, anybody is allowed to do anything.

      1. I find Heyer’s omniscient POV a little wearing because she does seem to be writing primarily in genre and so I guess I expect more to *happen*. Austen’s omniscient POV works better for me because I think of her as writing social observations from a female perspective, which for her time pretty inevitably meant dealing with the need to marry. But I categorize the kind of writing she’s doing as more like, say, EM Forster’s in “A Room with a View” — the plot is driven by romance, but there’s a lot of contemporaneous social observation going on — than like Heyer’s. Or for a romance that doesn’t fit with the genre requirements of HEA, Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence.”

        Almost everything I know about societies historically, because I don’t read much historical nonfiction, is from reading novels written at those times. Books written at later times, no matter how well-researched, I tend to find more suspect.

        1. Georgette is the queen of show not tell, in terms of character, though.

          Since we are talking Cotillion, there is all the interaction between Freddy and his father, which shows you that father comes to have a new viewpoint on Freddy, who he as always thought of as stupid.

          Kitty behaves with generosity of spirit; befriending Dolph’s girlfriend, not betraying Meg’s misbehavior even when they are on the outs, being happy that her governess has married, etc. Georgette never has to say she is kind, because she shows her being kind.

          I’m always way more interested in the character than the social observation, so I don’t miss it. I am careful which Georgette I start a new reader on though, both to minimize the summary and to not be too confusing with the titles/last name/first name/honorific all used for the same character, which can make the uninitiated think 6 people are in the room.

  7. I’m a currently struggling with just this as make my way through the third (2.5?) draft of a murder mystery with romantic sub-plot. The pacing wasn’t working in the first half of the novel so I’ve been working through to tighten, remove unnecessary intern thoughts, pare back the description, but it’s also resulted in making the non-murder mystery romance seem much less important so they’ve been summarized or cut. I’m having a hard time because later in the story I need the romance arc to come back and it’s important to my character arc. How do I figure out the right balance?

    1. Keeping in mind that I haven’t read your story and haven’t any idea of what’s actually in it . . .

      If your romance can be summarized and cut, the story is weak. That is, if the scenes can be summarized in one sentence, nothing important was happening in the romance scenes. If they can be cut, nothing important was happening in them. So I’d go back and look at the romance to see what happened at the turning points, the major scenes: how did the romance arc, how did the major turning points of the mystery plot interlock with the turning points of the romance? What kind of impact did the romance have on the mystery in each act? What kind of impact did the mystery have on the romance? If you really can cut most of the romance, do you even need it?

      1. I think part of my issue too is feeling so insecure about the pacing in the first half of the mystery that I’ve cut everything that doesn’t further that momentum. In the second half of the story the mystery and the romance become more intertwined. So, clearly what I need to be doing is building the momentum of the romance along side the mystery. Very helpful. Thank you!

        1. Again, I’m advising you blind, but it’s also possible that you’re starting your story too early. What happens if you cut everything before the point where the story and the romance become interlocked?

  8. Thank you for the explanation.

    And, damn you, now I want to read Jane’s story.

    1. I was just scrolling through the comments to say “Please, please, write a story about Jane who picks off pigeons and hires assassins!” 🙂

      1. Too late. The assassin in the cab got her, and now the pigeons are taking their revenge on her grave. It’s over. Move on.

        1. LOL, and then the assassin moved to Italy?

          (-: You are very good at finishing stories definitively. The pigeons live happily ever after.

    2. No, you don’t. Jane shoots innocent pigeons. And anyway, she left her office at lunch and got hit by a cab driven by one of the assassins she’d rejected.

      1. If you live in the right parts of certain cities long enough, it can really change your idea of the innocence of pigeons. And of the charm of horse-drawn carriages, for the same four-letter reason.

  9. Action scenes can be as dull as narrative when don’t develop character or move the plot. Let me complain at this point about long sex scenes of perfect, multi-orgasmic sex. I’ve read book after book with this trend, and I’m frankly bored by it. Give us some bad sex, something unexpected, give the characters challenges to work through.

    SEP turned the perfect lover idea on its head in one of her books. The male was really working at it, almost doing triple backflips on the dismount effort-wise, and when the multi-orgasms were done, the female’s response was always a tepid, “Yes, that was nice.” It was a technique verses passion issue, and “perfect” sex became one of the obstacles the couple had to overcome. That had meaning.

    1. Yep. A scene must show character change and move the plot or you don’t need it. Although the character changed can be pretty small, it should be there.

    2. Which book was this? I thought I’d read all of SEP’s work, but I can’t recall this one. Sounds interesting.

  10. The whole summary/scene and marked/unmarked thing is always a big challenge when writing sf/f and when writing a series (and PARTICULARLY when writing an sf/f series!).

    In fantasy (ex. Game of Thrones), in science fiction (ex. Ender’s Game), you’ve got a lot of stuff that’s unmarked for the characters but completely unknown to the readers. And in a series (ex. W Is for Wasted), you’ve got a lot of unmarked stuff that’s known to your regular readers, but NOT known to someone trying your work for the first time by picking up book #17 in the series, and also sort of HALF-known to people who are semi-regular readers or who don’t have prefect recall of earlier books.

    In fantasy, sf, and series fiction, you’re always walking a tightrope between making things completely clear to someone who’s totally unfamiliar with your work or premises or backstory, while simultaneously not boring-to-death someone who knows your work very well and/or is very impatient with ANY time spent explaining or summarizing stuff they quickly “get.”

    I don’t have a right answer or handy guideline for “how to” work with this challenge, I just know it as one I’m always dealing with in my work–and always seeing dealt with in the work I read. F

    Nor is there really a “right” way to deal with it that works for everyone. I can immediately think of bestselling and award-winning series writers whose work I find impenetrable because book #7 assume I have perfect recall of everything that happened in books 1-6, so the complete absence of backstory or summary explanation ensures I have absolutely no idea what’s going on and soon quit reading. I can also think of bestseller and award-winning writers who make me feel like I’m being RELENTLESSLY BLUDGEONED with backstory and info-dumps about their estbalished world-building premises from the very first paragraph onward, to such an extent that I get to the end of chapter two feeling like I haven’t yet apotted anything resembling a story, just backstory and premise-dumps–and, again, I quit reading.

    But since, as mentioned, I’m talking about bestselling and award-winning authors in both of those examples, I can’t say that’s “wrong” or “doesn’t work,” since they presumably wouldn’t be getting awards and making bestseller lists if their work didn’t work VERY well for lots of other people. So I can’t reasonably say “don’t do that.” I can only say, “It makes me stop reading,” and I try not to do the things as a writer that make me quit reading as a reader. (Whether or not I succeed is left up to the judgment of readers and my editor.)

    Anyhow, so I look for books/writes that I think do this well–establishing world-building, premise, backstory, unmarked moments for the character that need to be marked for the reader, etc., etc. And then I study them and try to figure how and why I think what they’re doing works well.

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