Most of a writer’s genius comes in the art of the finesse.How finely you craft your project before you let it go is up to each individual writer.
As a plot consultant, I developed the Scene Tracker Kit tohelp writers finesse their scenes. A story comes alive at the scene level for the audience, be it a crowd or an individual reader. Well-written scenes allow both the observer and the reader to viscerally take part in the story. Some people rather enjoy a more distanced, intellectual challenge. Most, however, engage on an emotional level, too.
Each scene has a plot structure of its own. The scene shows the character step toward a goal or desire. The move forward causes an equal or better effect with conflict and tension. The scene ends with failure or an unanswered question, or a cliffhanger, something that entices the audience deeper into the story.
Moment by Moment
Scenes show moment-by-moment action that causes an effect onthe characters’ development as shown through his/her words choices in dialogue, facial expressions, next moves in response to the action, gestures, and every detail down to the breath.
Plot covers a specified period of time, from one moment in the centuries past and those to come. The Blockbuster Plots line of plot tools explains plot at the overall story level and at the scene level, too. In both cases, the focus is on scene.
But, when stories take place over a long time span, one scene cannot always cause the next scene to unfold. In order that the story not become episodic, the use of summary becomes paramount. Cause and effect soothes the audience and makes the story best spent in scene. But, there are times whena scene just won’t do.
You’ve heard the writer’s mantra: “Show, don’t tell.”
A scene shows.
A story made up entirely of scenes can inject too much conflict and become exhausting for the reader or moviegoer. Summary is a placeto rest and make transitions. Instead of every single moment played out inscene, time is compressed with summary.
Summary narrates quickly those events that are not asimportant enough to the overall story line to show in detail. Summary relates the events in their sequence or tells how things were during a particularperiod time. The use of summary is helpful in moving the story forward quickly.That way you, as the writer, can focus on creating scenes to show the moments that are the most important to your plot.
Movie and Novel Examples
Always a sucker for a good historical story, I have chosen two epics to serve as examples for the use of summary. Charles Frasier begins Thirteen Moons in Circumstantial Summary. Director Sofia Coppola’s begins Marie Antoinette in Sequential Summary.
“There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nighland, where all the ghosts of man and animals yearn to travel. We’re called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there. A sorrowful path. And maybe not exactly Paradise at the end. The belief I’ve acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the after life as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed a journey.
“Cloudy days, I sit by the fire and talk nothing but Cherokee. Or else I sit silent with pen and paper, rendering the language into Sequoyah’s syllabrary, the characters forming under my handlike hen-scratch hieroglyphs. On sunny days, I usually rock on the proch wrapped in a blanket t and read and admire the vista.”
The opening of Thirteen Moons by Charles Frasier is an example of Circumstantial Summary. Thegeneral circumstances are described from the main character’s point of view.The audience learns what his life is like now that he faces death. The main character gives us his take on the approaching “Nightland.” The second paragraph tells us in summary the circumstances of how his days unfold.
The movie Marie Antoinette begins with a series of snippets like short summaries,some lasting only seconds. The first snippet is of Marie as a 13-year-old girlwaking up one morning. Next snippet she plays with her dog while being dressedby her attendant. Next, her mother tells Marie the gravity of the honor being bestowed her. Marie then sets off on a journey. Friends appear along the way.The betrothed is introduced. Marie and friends sleep on the carriage. They playcards on the carriage. They sleep.
The opening of Marie Antoinette relates in sequence the events that happen over aspecific period of time, but compresses them. This is an example of Sequential Summary.
Summary is telling and sets us apart from the action. However, in both examples, the use of authentically historic sensory details infuses the summaries with life and immediacy.
Note of Caution:
In Marie Antoinette, Sophia Coppola creates Thematic Significance and forces a comparison between the story and the rock star mentality of today. Yet, both Thirteen Moons and Marie Antoinette overuse Circumstantial Summary and Sequential Summary both. Summary, no matter how well written or directed, ultimately distances the audience from the character.
In each of these examples, when we do get an intimate peek into the character, it is in scenes that flow one into the next through cause and effect. However, this happens in few too many scenes and far too short a time.
Yes, summary makes the time pass and history unfold quickly.The audience observes life during a specific time span and truly feels that time. But, ultimately, something is lost at the Character Emotional Development level when stories spend more time in summary and not enough time in scene.
Excerpts of this article were taken directly from Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple by Martha Alderson,M.A.. Martha Alderson is an international plot and story consultant for writers. Her clients include best-selling authors, screenwriters, writing teachers and fiction editors. She created a unique line of plot tools for writers, including the Scene Tracker Kit, and the Plot Planner DVDs. She teaches plot workshops privately, through University of California Santa Cruz, Learning Annex and at writing conferences. Contact her at: contact at blockbusterplots.com
Causes Martha Alderson Supports
Santa Clara Children's Shelter
Santa Clara Animal Rescue