The scene is the most important basic organizational unit of stories. It is a piece of textual virtual reality, fully immersing your readers in another world. It takes place in a single place and time, each with a specific beginning and ending. The place can be an area, or a path a mile or millions of miles in length. And the time span may be a few minutes or hours, or even milliseconds or millennia.
You may chop scenes up and intersperse the slices with other scenes, as when you switch back and forth between a pursued and a pursuer. You may also cut scenes up into slices when you dramatically change the direction of the scene, as when a character enters or exits the scene, or an important event occurs. This might mean that you will place one slice in one chapter and the second slice in another chapter.
Summaries of scenes, conventional wisdom has it, are emotionally cool and distance your readers, while scenes are hot and suck them into your story. This has fooled many into advising you to avoid summaries and exalt scenes, often stated as “Show not tell.”
In fact, this aspect of summaries makes them just as useful as scenes. You can use them like an orchestra conductor, for instance, to modulate the tension in a story. Non-stop action eventually uses up the adrenaline of even adrenaline-addicted teens. Instead of constantly rising tension your readers reach emotional plateaus and then exhaustion. They may then put your story down for a time, or even forever.
Summaries can give your readers emotional vacations within your story. Then when they read new emotionally tense scenes their ability to handle the tension has been refreshed and (without a nearby intense scene to compare to) they subjectively feel as if the overall tension has risen.
Summaries can also give your readers an intellectual distance from your story. This might give them a better appreciation of its overall sweep, or a profounder understanding of issues with which your story deals, or a chance to savor the contradictions of your main character.
scenes vs. summaries
How do you choose a scene over a summary, then? Partly by considering which details of your characters’ experience are important or less important.
(If they are not at all important you should leave them out – but you must be careful. Details can have subtly indirect uses, such as to build a mood or better limn a character or setting. Or to plant a clue that will later bear fruit.)
A scene packages crucial detail. The exact placement of the detail is changeable, however. When rewriting you may want to shift a clue to an earlier or later scene, for instance. And this may lead you to decide to convert scenes to summaries or vice versa.
micro-summaries, micro-scenes, phantom summaries
Another aspect of scenes and summaries is that rarely are they one or the other. Scenes often have micro-summaries embedded in them, as when you write the following.
“I heard something disturbing from the sergeant last night.” She recounted the conversation.
If the conversation was not too far in the reader’s past there is no need to repeat it.
Or you write a summary like this: It took them three days to cross the desert, under a blazing sun and lashed by blowing sand. By embedding crucial detail into the summary it becomes a micro-scene.
The “phantom” or inferred summary creates an impression in your readers’ minds by the contrast between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next. As in the following.
The slender sky-reaching towers of new-born Ilion shown in the Spring-time double suns.
The grey sleet of deepest winter could not hide the broken windows and scarred sides of the towers before her. What had happened in the millennia lost to her?
What is the right length for a scene or summary? Whatever seduces your readers to the response you want. It can be many pages long. Or it can be a phantom scene (or scenes) summarized by a blank line on the page, what film-makers call a jump cut.
Your choice of scene or summary is especially important at the beginning of a story, for the beginning of every story is crucial to its success. It must suck your readers in, or at least not turn them away.
Conventional wisdom favors beginning with a scene. Such wisdom must be not be followed slavishly, however. A writer with extraordinary poetic gifts can write a summary so evocative that it utterly fascinates your readers. As did J. R. R. Tolkien who began The Lord of the Rings with a long description of the lives of Hobbits.
chapters vs. scenes
Chapters package one to several scenes (or summaries of scenes ) into a chapter, and it matters less which goes into each chapter than that the sequence of scenes stays the same.
Conversely, if you have an especially long scene, you may split it over several chapters. The split usually comes when the scene takes a different direction, as when a character enters or exits a scene.
Chapters are more important to you the writer than to your readers. They simply turn the end-of-chapter page to go to the next page and (if you do your job) eagerly continue reading with no conscious thought that there was a transition.
For you they help organize sets of scenes into the larger scheme of your overall story – and this scheme may change and so change your chapter breaks when you have finished the story and rethink it. Or when you rewrite the story, correcting some scenes, throwing others out and adding new ones, compressing scenes to summaries, and expanding summaries into scenes.