Scene vs Narrative Summary: What’s the Difference?

By Samantha Martin

When it comes down to it, you have two choices with which to present information to your readers. The first is Scene. The second is Narrative Summary. In Scene, we follow characters through their experiences. Narrative Summary refers to a passage that recaps events that have taken place or are taking place without dropping readers into a scene. While narrative summary is an effective way to get information across quickly, it’s not always the best choice. If you can show the readers a complicated past between two characters without info-dumping their entire life story, this is usually the better choice, as it allows for the gradual reveal of information in a more satisfying way. 

Example: How can we rewrite this narrative summary into scene? 

“Mary had known John her whole life. They were close when they were younger, but now, she could barely bring herself to look at him, afraid that one look would betray the huge crush she had on him.”

This is an example of narrative summary. We know the relationship between Mary and John, and something about their past. However, assuming our story is going to follow the development of their relationship, it would be much more effective to show us an interaction between the two, giving readers information in a more subtle way. Let’s consider how we could revise this: 

“As Mary walked the halls, she kept her head down, staring at her scuffed white Converse. She barely paid attention to where she was going, until she crashed headlong into someone. 

“Oh, I’m sorry—Mary?” 

Mary’s heart thumped beneath her shirt. Of course it was John. Of course, when she looked up, she was going to see those brown eyes, the same brown eyes that had peered at her from under a sleeping bag as they giggled the night away up in her tree house all those years ago. And she knew that, if she met those eyes, he would know. So she mumbled “sorry” as quietly as she could, and went on her way.” 

Though we don’t get the same level of specificity as in the narrative summary, we still get the general vibe of who Mary is and a glimpse of who they were to each other. Details like Mary’s shoes and the memory of the tree house help us connect to the characters we are reading about rather than just hearing about them. We get to know characters by what they say and do, not by reading long chunks of information about them. Letting us get to know your characters in this way gives ample opportunity for development of a unique voice for your writing. If we don’t get to know your characters before they are thrown into interesting and perilous situations, the intrigue of your manuscript will suffer. 

Though narrative summary is a great tool that certainly has a place in writing, it is important to consider if using it is sacrificing opportunity for character development. If you find yourself writing your protagonist’s entire life story as the opening to your book, consider how you can reveal these details more gradually through interesting situations and interactions with other characters.

Samantha Martin is an intern at Holloway Literary. Follow Samantha on Twitter @Am_I_Write.