Compression, Structural: Scene versus Summary Narrative

Compression, Structural: Scene versus Summary Narrative – Fiction relies on a difference between narrative time and real time, or the time it would take narrated (told) events to “actually happen.” Without this difference, fiction is if not impossible, at least highly problematic, very long, and definitely very, very boring. Thus the question, when narrating events—cutting them down to their juiciest bits for the reader—is, which events are important to relate, and which are not?

The process of choosing scenes is compression: You take a sequence of events (the French Revolution, a romance, a journey into a strange land) and choose representative passages to relate in scenes as well as representative passages and moods to describe via summary narrative.

Scenes function as analogs for real-time events; they allow us to “experience what is going on” directly and thus powerfully. Specific scenes give us the “real moments” during which we feel the themes of the fiction most sharply. We are “really there,” in our heads. For masterful examples of writing composed entirely of vivid scenes, examine Shakespeare, Raymond Carver, and Flannery O’Connor.

Summary passages are generally (though not always) weaker. They often function, setting-wise, as exposition (“generally, the world of the story was like this…”) and, narratively, as speeding-up (“then, some things happened which were boring, but they pretty much went like this, in a general sense…”). Summary usually connects specific scenes. Marquez, Kleist, and Pamuk are good examples of expert writers of summary passages which seem to require no traditional scenes to function as compelling stories with clear timelines.

In general, writers of fiction employ both strategies of compression. When reading, pay attention to how a writer weighs each strategy and to which is generally better written. In your own writing, think through your decisions about compression, especially when editing. How do your scenes connect? How is a scene telegraphed (foreshadowed, predicted) by an earlier one? Sometimes, even if a passage is decently written, you simply don’t need it. This is especially true, in my experience, of long summary passages. If you have good scenes at either end, the reader will connect the dots for herself. Only supply summary of missing time if that time is actually interesting. Pointing out an absence of narrative action is unnecessary.

In any event, whether scene or summary, the goal is to generate text in the service of the structure of the novel and of the development of the characters. Together, these functions ladder up to the unfolding of the work’s theme. (Granted, that’s easier said than done.)

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