Building a Story with Scene and Summary

Word moral highlighted with a yellow markerYou’re building a story, pulling the events from your ancestor’s life and arranging them just so, in order to create interest and tension while still conveying facts and information to your family.

One of the essential building blocks of creative nonfiction is scene.

Lee Gutkind reminds us “the building blocks of creative nonfiction are little scenes or stories.”

He also says, “Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably-and in action, in scenes.”

Therefore, scenes becomes one of the most important techniques we must learn in our study of creative nonfiction and thus writing our family history stories.

When it comes to scenes, there are two things I wanted to impress upon you, and as to not overload you we will talk about one today and one tomorrow. First, let’s understand scene and summary, and how they are different, the purpose of each and then offer you some tips on to know when to use each.Tomorrow we will break down a scene for the purposes of writing one in your stories.

In the case of family history, a scene recreates an event or an experience for the reader from your ancestor’s life, from your memory of an ancestor, or from your own life. A scene happens in real time. The reader is placed immediately into the event as if it is playing out before their eyes. A scene is filled with detail, description and dialogue because it is through these literary devices the scene comes to life for the reader. The scene moves the story forward; it contains action that advances your ancestor towards his goal.

Of course not every fact needs to be transformed into a scene. We need to be selective about which information we want to show in a scene and which facts are better told in summary.  Summary is telling. It offers the reader a condensed narrative of what happens, think of the summary as the voiceover or the narrator in a movie.  Summary is reserved for conveying background information.The information is compacted, summarized.

In creative nonfiction, you’ll hear scene and summary referred to as showing and telling or scenes and exposition.  The essential point to understand, scenes are an important ingredient in making your family history a compelling read. The weaving of scene and summary is a wonderful way to keep your reader’s interest while delievering your family history research and engaging your reader in a story.


When to  Use Scene vs. Summary – 6 Tips                     

Finding The Story 3 UPDATE

Once again, there are no rules when it comes to deciding when to use scene or summary. As the author, this is your personal choice and once again you are going to look to your personal research and the story you intend to tell to help decide, the story plot.  However, here are a few overall guidelines to help you recognize those opportunities of when you may want to contemplate a scene or a summary.

  1. Is it an important event – such as a turning point? Keep scenes to significant events that move the story along and hold a momentous place in the plot line of your story.
  2. Time – 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.
  3. Do you have enough sensory detail? Do you have enough particulars to bring this event to life? Can you give the reader a visual of the event through your description and detail as if it is playing out in front of them?
  4. Do you have dialogue? Can you re-create a conversation based on your research, memories or an interview?
  5. Do you need to convey background information for the reader to understand the event, or need to communicate a lot of information, then summarize.
  6. Do you intend to reflect on an experience, then summarize.


Recognizing Scene and Summary Exercise


Part 1: The Yellow Highlighter Test

The Yellow Highlighter Test is an exercise that Lee Gutkind likes to use in his creative nonfiction classes and shared in his book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. I encourage you to give it a try as an exercise to help you get comfortable with recognizing a scene vs. a summary in a nonfiction piece of work.

Choose a nonfiction book from your bookshelf. If you don’t wish to mark up the text, select a chapter in the book and photocopy the pages.  Be sure it’s a nonfiction book, it’s important that we are using  the genre in which we are writing to understand showing and telling. Now with a yellow highlighter, highlight just the scenes in the pages you have chosen.

What types of things are shared in scene?

What is conveyed in the summary?

How much of the chapter is scene vs. summary?

Part 2: The Yellow Highlighter Test – If you have some of your own family history written, try the yellow highlighter test on it. Do you have both scene and summary? How much? If you don’t find a lot of yellow highlightings, perhaps consider what facts may be better off shared in a scene.  When you get to the revision part of your first draft, it might be best to consider what events might be better shared through a scene.

Here’s a video of Lee Gutkind explaining The Yellow Highlighter Test in a class.  Give it a try.