There seems like no better place to start Day 1 of The Family History Writing Challenge then with discussing the two major foundational elements of story; scene, and summary. When scene and summary are linked and framed within a story plot line, they have the potential to deliver engaging family history stories for our families all while offering information about your family history.
Think of your family history story like a chain. Each link represents either a scene or summary. Scene delivers the action while summary conveys the information. The action draws your family in, entertains them while the summary provides the facts and information about their ancestors that on their own would prove to be quite boring.
Each scene like a link in a chain depends on the next. Each scene contains action, the action in one scene affects your ancestor resulting in an action or reaction from him which cause yet another effect and, therefore, the next scene.
Cause and effect ties together and frames the story in a meaningful way – as opposed to a list of life events told in a chronological life order or a collection of vignettes. By using cause and effect to bond the scenes to one another you create a compelling plot that will engage your readers.
Scenes happen in real-time as if the event is playing out in the here and now, before the reader’s eyes. In your family history, scenes should correlate with events in your ancestor’s life. These scenes should be part of your ancestor’s journey to their story goal. (insert link to story goal post) They should demonstrate your ancestor’s action or reaction to an event. Scenes engage the senses and takes place in a single location.
Equally important in your story is summary. Summary explains something to the reader. It offers information such as histories of a town or explanations of a behaviour, backstory of an ancestor. It doesn’t engage the senses, and does not involve action. Summary is telling while scene is showing. Summary offers the reader a condensed narrative. The information is compacted and summarized. A summary helps a story move forward quickly jumping over spans of time, instead of having to show every movement of your ancestor. However, too much summary can turn the story into a dry narrative with no action and distances the reader from the story.
Finding the right balance between scene and summary is important. Too much summary and your story will be dull and unemotional. There are no rules as to how to use scene and summary. As the writer, it is up to you to decide what events and information will be shown in scene and what is best told in summary. However, there are a few guidelines that may help you decide when to use scene and when to use summary.
Is it an important event?
Important events, opening scenes, turning points, crisis and climax should be scenes. If the scene is essential to the forward movement of the plot, then you will want to turn to scene.
Does the time elapse over weeks or months or is it real time?
If the action is happening in real time, write a scene. If the action takes place over weeks or months, use summary.
Does the story change locations?
If your ancestor goes to town it’s not necessary to see the trip, then use summary to tell the movement. “They drove 5 miles to town”. The next scene picks up in town.
Reiterating details previously revealed in story.
If your Dad is telling his son about an event that has already played out in the scene you can use summary. For instance, She recounted the events to her father.
Do you have enough sensory detail to bring this event to life on the page?
Can you give the reader a visual of the event through your description and detail, using all of your senses of touch, see, hear, taste and sound. If so then use a scene.
Do you have dialogue?
Can you re-create a conversation based on your research, memories or an interview? Use a scene.
Do you need to convey background information?
If you need to convey background information for the reader to understand the event, or you need to communicate a lot of information, then use summary.
Are you reflecting on an experience?
If do you intend to reflect your opinions of an experience, summarize it.