On Scene, Summary, and Mimesis

Scene and Summary (and ellipses) Creates Rhythm and Shapes the Reader’s Experience 

One of the ways we create tension and release for the reader is through scene and summary, which also creates a rhythm and shape to our work. What we find when we read is that some of the story is generally dealt with in scene, with detail, with specific people, time, and place. Other parts of the story, that are less important, are compressed into summary. In general, moments of dramatic import, of emotional strength, we will want to dramatize in scene. Less important information we will compress, because compression will make it denser and increase its interest. Information that is not relevant to the story, we’ll omit.

What is a Scene?

By way of illustration, let me say that a movie, because of the nature of the film medium, always deals in scene. A play, for that matter, as well. We see everything that takes place, in time, as it happens. It has a frame and a focus. When information is not important, the film cuts away and we reenter the story at another point in time when the information is important again. So we have Scene 1 and then Scene 2.

A scene needn’t have people. But, as is the case with the movie, it will always have a Point of View (POV) and a frame. In movies the POV is the camera. The frame is the edge of the screen. In writing, the POV is, at least, the narrative POV, and the frame is created by the limits of the POV. For scene, the absolutely essential elements are a frame (focus) and the ticking of the clock. This ticking is usually expressed through things (subjects) in action. In writing this “ticking” should be considered a fluid combination of imagined time and reading time. The point is that the reader feels the dynamic energy of the moment dramatized.

What is Summary?

Summary creates a “sum” of individual parts. In summary things are merged together, which means compressed experience. As a general rule, summary compresses time and number. Individual perceivable experiences are added together into one whole. Summary can therefore convey some information while omitting other information: various kinds of perceivable detail, which might include specific location, or people, or just about anything and everything else. What is the reader left with? Well, whatever the writer deems worthy to remain. Summary creates a disjuncture between the time of the narrative and the reader’s ticking clock. It adds narrative density.

So, for example,

That was a particularly difficult year.

This summarizes time: the experiences of a year summed up in a single phrase.

The crowd surged.

This summarizes number: many individual people, perceived in time through a point of view summed into a single entity perceived all at once.

Just because it is summary, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be great writing. Some writers are wonderfully adept at rendering detailed summary that is both intellectually dense and emotionally evocative. It may not live in the mind like scene, but it blows the reader away. Alice Munroe, for example, is deft at summary.

Ideas are Summary

By my way of thinking, ideas are summary. For example, what I’m writing here is summary. It’s just a bunch of ideas, but ideas I’ve come to through experience of various kinds, reading, writing, things I’ve heard, thinking, over a course of many years. I couldn’t come to these ideas otherwise. But I’ve deemed all that experience unnecessary to relate, and include only the ideas that are the result of that experience. Some of the information, I’ve deemed important and relevant to our discussion—the conclusions I’ve drawn, but I’ve summarized the process—the actual life lived—by condensing time to the vanishing point, obliterating location, people, things, experience of all types that lead me to those conclusions. I’m saving you a lot of time by summarizing this information, and though I say all this as if I’m a disembodied and infallible voice, in fact, I’ve learned everything I know through personal experience perceived through a very fallible point of view, my own.

Mimesis

Mimesis is the classical Greek term that speaks to the way art, as a representation of life, imitates actual life. Mimesis functions in degree in all art. In writing we can think of it as the way the reading experience accurately reflects reality. The closer we come to mimesis the more vivid the imaginative experience for the reader. Some describe mimesis as “showing,” which shows “the life” as opposed to diegesis, “telling.”

However, vividness shouldn’t be equated necessarily with interest. I’ve omitted all my reading and thinking from this summary, as I’ve mentioned, because I just don’t think that will make for an engaging story. So, we have to remember that we are not simply rendering life, but telling an engaging story, which will be dense with relevance. This necessitates all sorts of creative choices that don’t reflect mimesis. Sometimes mimesis works to our advantage and sometimes it doesn’t.

Examples Revisited

In my first example, “that particularly difficult year,” I’ve conveyed the experiences of a year in under a second. There is not much mimesis there. Time is massively compressed. There is no concrete subject in the sentence—the difficulties didn’t seem to happen to anyone, and the reader is left with only an idea. Because of the lack of mimesis, there is little to evoke the imagination of the reader, which is more capable of imagining that which is rendered closer to real life experience—all of which deal with real people in specific place and time. Still, I have conveyed an abstract idea. There is almost nothing to ground it in experience. If the idea is particularly cogent, great, keep it. If it is not, cut it. I’d cut this sentence every time.

In my second example, the crowd surging, it becomes a little fuzzier. The subject, “crowd,” could be a subjective conclusion or a correct, and therefore objective discernment. The language is vague. I know it’s fuzzy because I can imagine a crowd surging, but not very clearly. As a writer, however, I haven’t worked hard to create mimesis. Still, I haven’t absolutely forbidden it either. I’ve compressed the individual perceptions that helped me understand that I was dealing with a crowd, but that compression was slight in comparison with my compression earlier. Also, I have a concrete noun—real people. I have a real location, and therefore also a discernible Point of View. There might be some imaginative effect here—but it won’t be potent. If I were to render the scene in more detail, with a greater imaginative effect, the question would arise, why? Is it so important to understand the individual elements of the crowd? Is it relevant to the story? If I want to keep my reader’s interest, I’ll get to what is important and render that in detail. For example,

And crushed the boy against the fence. 

We might be able to see here, in this last example, that the transition from summary to scene can take place in a heartbeat, and the fact is even in the most detailed scene we are not dealing with absolute mimesis—and we wouldn’t want that. Writing is selective. We frame experience. We select and condense that experience to heighten the effect of that material as we move toward relevance and meaning. We want an experience that is focused and compressed, and therefore dense and more stimulating than real life. Sometimes we linger on a detail—telling the reader it is important. Like the photographer who creates frame and focus geographically in space, we create frame and focus with scene and summary.

When it comes to Mimesis and Diegesis, Scene and Summary, showing and telling, clearly both are necessary to our work. We have to be able to determine when we need greater specificity to create a greater imaginative response or greater density when we want to create a greater intellectual response. We need the modulation between the two—this too forms a kind of emotional rhythm for the work. In general, when we are dealing with drama, those moments that are most dramatic will be dealt with in scene—we will choose to show and not tell—so that the reader can have the greatest emotional experience possible. In moments when our audience wants information, like this class, perhaps it is best to drop away those details of discovery and state conclusions concisely. That said, when in doubt, show!