Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Scene and Summary

In shifting from work on a novel (almost done!) to a nonfiction project (researched and three chapters in), I’ve been thinking a lot about how scene and summary work.

There’s a certain luxury about scenes in a novel. You can invent them one after another, whole cloth, and cut them as needed, which I did in a few spots in my latest novel. That’s not especially efficient, I know, but sometimes I need to write scenes in order to watch my characters interact, even if those scenes later end up as backstory or summary or litter in my hard drive.

When you’re writing narrative nonfiction from history, scenes pose a bigger challenge. You have to snatch every opportunity where there are sufficient details to construct them. You’ll do some of what Joan Silber calls “sneaky summary,” using details to simulate scene, as here, where my historical protagonist, Tagish Indian Shaaw Tlaa (later known as Kate Carmack), enters her puberty seclusion:

She would drink through a straw fashioned from the bone of a swan or a goose so her lips wouldn’t touch water.  She would keep busy with sewing brought by the Crow women, but she was not allowed to do any of the cutting. To ensure she would always be light on her feet, she might blow on down from a swan. If she rubbed her teeth with white rocks, they would stay strong even when she was old. But she had to be careful. Spirit power could backfire if it wasn’t used properly.

Even in fiction, scenes don’t include everything that happens. “Elements are reduced to the service of the story,” Silber says, noting that selective concreteness – gestures, dialogue, and sensory details – make us feel that we were there “for the good parts.” When in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald relays through Daisy’s friend Jordan how Daisy got drunk before her bridal dinner, he uses selective details instead of straight summary to render the culminating episode:

She began to cry – she cried and cried. I rushed out and found her mother’s maid, and we locked the door and got her into a cold bath. She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.

Summary isn’t simply the default for when we don’t have the raw materials for scene or for when we need a bridge between scenes. As Catherine Brady points out in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, summary can provide another level of intimacy with characters, allowing us to see how they perceive the world, as in this from my novel Cold Spell, where Sylvie speculates on why her mother became obsessed with a glacier:

The ice drew her mother, and Sylvie was helpless to stop it. Her obsession was absurd, an embarrassment that Sylvie struggled to justify. Maybe after her father packed his belongings into that refurbished Ford van and pointed it south, her mother’s head had swelled with palm trees and beaches and skimpy swimsuits that a woman like Mirabelle might still pull off.  That big frozen mass would have butted the tropical images right out of her head. Or maybe she simply aspired to the cold, regal power of ice.

There’s a natural tension between what’s told and what’s shown, Brady points out, so that summary can actually set up the stakes for an entire novel.

Scene is the close-up shot, says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. Summary is the long shot. She adds a third category: musing, offering this sample from the first page of her memoir Lifesaving:

The way I see it, the story is about my mother’s lifelong terror of the sea and my father’s pigheadedness. Or perhaps it is about the absurd pretenses of the British middle class, particularly the male of that species, whose dignity must be preserved at all costs. It might be in part about those costs – about the price some of us paid for keeping up that pretense. It might, too, be about a child’s lifelong yearning to save her mother. Inevitably, though, as I set out to tell what happened on the day of the race, the telling is also about the creation of myth and fallibility of memory. Memory lurking in the shadow of myth, waiting to be lost in the dark.

Barrington notes that beginning writers tend too much toward summary. As they gain experience, they tend toward scene, missing out on the power of summary and musing to build intimacy with characters, to set up the stakes, and to heighten tension. “Remember it is scene and summary that make for a good story,” she says, “while musing in some form makes it layered and thought-provoking.”