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Monday, January 11, 2021

Scene vs. Summary & When to Use Which

When I was a young writer, I didn't fully understand what a scene was and what a summary was. Later, when I understood the difference, I wasn't always sure when to use which. These days, I occasionally help writers with the same things. They may use summary for what should have been a scene, or they may write a whole scene for what really should have been summary. Understanding the difference and when to use which can be key when writing a successful novel. 

Sure, some of it is subjective.

But what might be surprising to some, is that most of the time, one is more . . . "correct" than the other.  


A scene is a structural unit that tends to have these qualities: 

- Happens in Real Time

A scene will largely happen in real time. This means we "watch" the characters move, act, and talk, as if it were happening in real life. 

- Dramatizes (Shows > Tells)

A scene dramatizes. It uses showing more than telling. If a character is angry with a friend, we see that anger in action and conversation. We may witness her yell or kick a rock, for example. It's like watching a stage play. 

- Concrete

Because it is dramatized, a scene will usually be more concrete. It will more likely appeal to our senses and the physical world and experience.

- Characters Acting in a Specific Location

A scene will have characters in a location (in some very rare cases, the setting or society may act as characters). They might be talking on a train ride, or exploring a cave, or dueling in the snow. 


Scene Examples

(Because a full scene often lasts pages, these examples are passages from specific scenes.) 

"This won't take long, Andrew," said the doctor.

Ender nodded.

"It's designed to be removed. Without infection, without damage. But there'll be some tickling, and some people say they have a feeling of something missing. You'll keep looking around for something, something you were looking for, but you can't find it, and you can't remember what it was. So I'll tell you. It's the monitor you're looking for, and it isn't there. In a few days that feeling will pass."

The doctor was twisting something at the back of Ender's head. Suddenly a pain stabbed through him like a needle from his neck to his groin. Ender felt his back spasm, and his body arched violently backward; his head struck the bed. He could feel his legs thrashing, and his hands were clenching each other, wringing each other so tightly that they arched.

"Deedee!" shouted the doctor. "I need you!" The nurse ran in, gasped. "Got to relax these muscles. Get it to me, now! What are you waiting for!"

Something changed hands; Ender could not see. He lurched to one side and fell off the examining table. "Catch him!" cried the nurse.

"Just hold him steady--"

"You hold him, doctor, he's too strong for me--"

"Not the whole thing! You'll stop his heart--"

Ender felt a needle enter his back just above the neck of his shirt. It burned, but wherever in him the fire spread, his muscles gradually un-clenched. Now he could cry for the fear and pain of it.

"Are you all right, Andrew?" the nurse asked. 

- Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card


Mrs. Reed occupied her usual seat by the fireside; she made a signal to me to approach; I did so, and she introduced me to the stony stranger with the words: “This is the little girl respecting whom I applied to you.”

He, for it was a man, turned his head slowly towards where I stood, and having examined me with the two inquisitive-looking grey eyes which twinkled under a pair of bushy brows, said solemnly, and in a bass voice, “Her size is small: what is her age?”

“Ten years.”

“So much?” was the doubtful answer; and he prolonged his scrutiny for some minutes. Presently he addressed me—“Your name, little girl?”

“Jane Eyre, sir.”

In uttering these words I looked up: he seemed to me a tall gentleman; but then I was very little; his features were large, and they and all the lines of his frame were equally harsh and prim.

“Well, Jane Eyre, and are you a good child?” 

- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë



A summary has these qualities:

- Condensed Time

Summaries condense time. They may cover a month in a single sentence. They may talk about recurring events over a time period, within one paragraph. They may relay a past event (or in some cases, a future event) within a brief moment. They don't happen in real time. 

- Explains through Telling

Since the moment isn't happening in real time, the audience is told more than shown what happened. This gives summary a stronger, guiding, narrative hand. Rather than experiencing the passage like the character, it's more like the audience is being guided by a storyteller (generally speaking).

- More Abstract

For those reasons, telling is more abstract. It's more likely to express ideas and concepts, rather than specific experiences. 

- Characters and/or Setting may Change Swiftly (or Maybe Not Even Be Present In Some Cases)

A summary may not focus on a specific character or stay in the same setting. It may move quickly through settings or may not even mention a specific setting. 

Summary Examples

Mother came home and commiserated with Ender about the monitor. Father came home and kept saying it was such a wonderful surprise, they had such fantastic children that the government told them to have three, and now the government didn't want to take any of them after all, so here they were with three, they still had a Third . . . until Ender wanted to scream at him, I know I'm a Third, I know it, if you want I'll go away so you don't have to be embarrassed in front of everybody.
- Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy to me. He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh in my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions; the servants did not like to offend their young master by taking my part against him, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject: she never saw him strike or heard him abuse me, though he did both now and then in her very presence, more frequently, however, behind her back. 

- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


When to Use Which

Most novels are better written with more scene than summary. Scenes dramatize the story, so that the audience feels like they are experiencing and participating in it. Scenes are more impactful. Scenes are more likely to stir emotions. Because they are more concrete, they are more likely to stick in the reader's memory. 

However, this is not to say all novels are better with more scene than summary. You can indeed find successful books with more summary. This can be particularly useful in books with huge casts and many viewpoint characters, books that take place over a long period of time (such as a character's entire life), or books with powerful, present omniscient narrators. Not all books that rely on summary more than scene are bad. 

But most books are better told largely through scene than summary.

And pretty much all novels need some of both. 

So when do we use which?

Sometimes I edit passages that are weakened because they are summarized instead of dramatized. Other times I read scenes that offer very little dramatic value and should have been summarized. 



A good rule of thumb is the more significant the moment, the more likely it needs to be rendered as a scene. 

Big turning points and climactic moments should almost always be a scene--whether that turning point relates to character arc, plot, or theme

This means that the climactic moments of the beginning, middle, and end, should almost always be a scene.

Anything we've been building up to in the primary plotline related to the arc, events, or theme, should probably be a scene. 

If you are following a story structure, key moments in that structure should likely be a scene. The inciting incident should likely be a scene, the midpoint should likely be a scene, Plot Point 2 should likely be a scene . . . 

Now, in a novel, there may be many plotlines besides the primary. The less important the plotline, the less likely you need all its turning points in scenes (or even on page). 

Impactful moments should usually be scenes. If they are summary, sometimes the audience feels cheated. Imagine building up to the climax of a novel, only to have the author summarize it. It's almost always a letdown.

Sometimes newer writers do this sort of thing, because they are intimidated by trying to write the scene. They may feel unsure that they can write it well. Remember, you can edit, and edit, and re-edit the scene to make it better. Daring to write a poor scene and then edit it, will get you further in the long run than avoiding it altogether. 

In many genres, you will have what are called "obligatory scenes." These are what they sound like. They need to happen. In a scene. 

So in romance, you almost always need to have a first kiss scene. In a murder mystery, you almost always need to have an opening scene where a body is discovered. Obligatory scenes should be scenes, not summary, most of the time. 



On the other side of the spectrum, we have summary. If an entire novel were written with scenes, it would probably be long and boring. Not everything is important enough to be a scene. And if you make it a scene, it's a flat scene without any real turning point or change. This kills pacing. 

Use summary when the audience needs to know the fact that something happened, but it's not important for them to experience it. 

For example, the fact that Jacob didn't get much sleep the prior night probably isn't important enough for a full scene, but it might be important for the audience to know for the next scene. It might influence what happens in the next scene. That is a good time to use summary. 

Use summary when you need to cover a broader length of time in a shorter amount of space. For example, you may have characters who need to trek to a distant land, which may take months. But the story isn't about the trek itself. Use summary to tell us about the trek, without making the story only about the trek. (Not to mention if the trek was all in scenes, it'd be overly detailed and likely boring.)

Along the same line, summary can sometimes be great for scene transitions--usually when what happened between the scenes is worth mentioning, but not worth dramatizing. 

Summary is also important in providing context for the reader. Summary may be used to set up a situation or to provide additional background information that the reader needs in order to interpret what is happening in the story, accurately. 

For example, you may summarize a short backstory to explain a character's current behavior. 


Scene vs. Showing; Summary vs. Telling

Scene is mostly like showing, and summary is mostly like telling. However, the concepts are slightly different. For example, I may write in a scene "Emily was tired," which would be "telling" but I wouldn't consider it "summary." Just as I wouldn't necessarily consider "I felt angry" summary, so much as I would consider it to be telling. 

Likewise, you may have a scene that is largely introspection, which may be showing a character's thought process as he summarizes events through telling sentences. 

Yeah, if we get deep, it turns into splitting hairs. 

Even between showing and telling, if you want to make yourself really crazy, sometimes you can use summary and telling on a small scale to show something on a big scale. For example, to show that a character has a habit of being late, you may use summary that includes some telling about his morning routine, to cover several such instances. However, one could easily argue that you could simply do a scene that shows him showing up late, and have another character use dialogue that implies this is a common occurrence. 

But let's not induce headaches today! My point is, that the boundaries do blur, and things aren't always as clear cut as we make them sound.

Nonetheless, because summary and telling overlap, you can use many of the same technique that we use to write great telling, to write great summary. And rather than rewrite all those techniques, I have them in my article "10 Cheats to Tell Well."

Mixing Scene and Summary

In order to write a great novel, many scenes will include some summary within them. Like I mentioned above, you may need to slip in some backstory information through summary. Or perhaps in the scene, the characters are having dinner, but you want half the scene to be the cooking and the other half to happen while they are eating. Depending on how long the food takes to make, you may need some summarizing: "Don finished putting the toppings on the pizza and then put it in the oven for 30 minutes."

Similarly, if you are going to have a lengthy passage of summary, it's often effective to include scene-like moments--perhaps a paragraph that captures part of a conversation in real time, before going back to summary. Or maybe the summary includes a significant action that would be rendered better with a little more detail, like a half-scene. 

In any case, we want to make sure we are using both scene and summary, and perhaps just as important, that we are using them at the right moments.


There is a FREE online writing summit this month, with 20+ writers, creatives, editors, and publishers Jan. 18-29. I will be talking about theme on the 24th. Sign up.


  1. Great info here. I'm writing an action story, and I have to be careful not to wear out the reader with one action scene after another.

    1. This is true. Too much of a good thing can be problematic. :)

  2. Hey, love your blog! :) There's just so many useful and fun articles, and I found this one at the perfect time! I've been running into a bit of a conundrum over this subject lately, and was wondering if you could offer me any advice.
    I've always kind of struggled with passage of time in stories that I write, where, in the scope of the story, it almost feels too abrupt to just summarize those sections when time is passing by or when the characters are traveling. Obviously, it would drag the story out to a ridiculous length to write out each and every detail, but is there a good way to avoid it feeling choppy when summarizing?
    I have a hatred for unrealistic passages of time (for instance, where it takes two days to travel the length of a huge kingdom), but that very hatred kind of ties my hands, because I then feel obliged to make it a matter of weeks between some of the major events in my story line. I've been trying to toe the line between it being a "realistic" amount of time and a convenient amount of time, and it's been... a bit of a struggle. Mainly because of the issue with summarizing those lengths of time. Would the answer be to make it a mix of both scene and summary, where I summarize the majority of it, with a few small anecdotes tucked in to lend it interest?
    Thanks so much!

    1. September C. FawkesJune 12, 2022 at 3:36 PM

      Hey, thanks!

      I haven’t had the chance to give this a good response yet, but I have seen it, and might put together a blog post on that topic for ya, to explain it better. If you want to email me, I can send you a draft of the post ahead of time, so you don’t have to wait longer for a response (I already have posts scheduled for the next 7 weeks or so)

      The last method you mentioned can work well—if you are going to have a longer passage of summary, it’s usually best if it borrows and incorporates scene and showing elements.

    2. Thanks so much for the reply! I think I'll do that. ;)


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