Summarizing Your Scenes – A Road Map for Your Book

If you’re writing or revising a book, summarizing your scenes provides a road map. That is, you can see the big picture at a glance. My manuscript is over four hundred pages long, whereas my list of Scene Summaries is only seventeen pages.

Summarizing Your Scenes: A Road Map for Your Book
Summarizing Your Scenes: A Road Map for Your Book

Creating and maintaining a list of every scene in my book takes a lot of work. Why do it?

In a Peanuts cartoon (by Charles Shulz) Lucy says to Snoopy,

You know what’s wrong with your writing? It’s unbelievably boring! A person could fall asleep reading it.” Snoopy says, “I fell asleep writing it.”

Years ago, I got an idea, typed away at a novel, and stopped after seven chapters, bored spit-less. So I did what I should’ve done in the first place – I found a book on how to write a novel. The next year, I finished the rough draft. My family, bless their hearts, liked it. So I pitched my book to agents and editors. Before it was ready. Way too soon. I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Sometimes I still do. Of course my book got rejected.

Several agents, however, included feedback in their rejections. I revised using their suggestions and submitted my work, and got rejected again and again, until I signed a contract with a literary agent last November. A few weeks later, the editor at the agency emailed me a copy of my manuscript with her notes in the margins, plus she sent a list of questions about the story.

Editor Feedback: a fog warning
1. Some of the subplots seems disjointed, e.g., the antagonist – what’s he doing “in the meantime” and how do his actions advance the plot and build suspense?
2. The relationship between M and D needs transition (perhaps backstory) between the time M calls her about her problem and the day she visits her.
3. Transitions between actions and scenes need to be more obvious.
4. Please remember this is your story. Change whatever makes the most sense to you!

The editor actually sent eight items that pointed to big problems. My book still needed work. I was overwhelmed. You know what kept me going? It was item #4. With that in mind, I tackled the problems, hoping to come up with ideas.

In Genesis, we find the story of someone like us who needed an idea.

The Creative Servant
The servant prayed, “Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”
(from Genesis 24:12-14 NIV)

In his prayer for success, he proposed a plan to God. Isn’t that creative? I’m thankful God made us creative.

Revision:  the best and worst of times
Revision: the best and worst of times

Getting criticism about our work, however, is daunting. The first item of my editor’s feedback said: Some of the subplots seems disjointed, e.g., the antagonist – what’s he doing “in the meantime” and how do his actions advance the plot and build suspense?

A Peanuts cartoon shows Lucy giving advice to Snoopy.

“You know what you should do? You should write a story that would excite the reader as the plot thickens.” Snoopy reflects, “In all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve never had a plot thicken.”

Me neither, at least not enough. Without re-reading the entire manuscript, how could I pinpoint the comings and goings of my antagonist?

Road Signs: to help us find our way
Road Signs: to help us find our way

The answer? I consulted my list of summaries. The idea for summarizing a scene came from a writing book that said to identify each component in the scene – the who, what, where, when, and how of the action, plus the transition from the previous scene, using short phrases and abbreviations.

An Example of Scene Summaries from Genesis 24
1.(Page 1 – Verses 1-4) Action: (Between 2000-1500 B.C. in Canaan) Abraham is old…wants a suitable wife for Isaac. Story goal: Do all he can to ensure that his bloodline will continue through Isaac according to God’s promise. Start goal: Call his oldest servant and ask him to take an oath that he will find a suitable wife. End goal: Send the servant to Ur. Y/N Reader Q: Will Abraham convince the servant to do as he says?

2.(Verses 5-9) Reaction: (The same day) Servant…He has listened to Abraham. Asks, “Should I then take Isaac there to live among your relatives in the land you came from?” He listens to Abrahams’ answers. The servant takes the oath. Start goal: listen and make sure he understands Abraham. End goal: obey the instructions by making the trip to Ur. Next: Sc3. Y/N Reader Q: Will the servant reach Ur, find a wife, and bring her back to Isaac?
. . .
10. (Verses 62-66) Action: (Weeks later in Canaan) Servant…He’s been traveling with Rebekah and her entourage. They reach Canaan, where they see a man out in the field. Rebekah asks him who the man is. The servant says, “He is my master,” and she puts on her veil. When they reach Isaac, the servant tells him all that transpired. Soon Isaac marries Rebekah. Start goal: to take Rebekah safely back to Canaan. End goal: to continue to serve God and serve Abraham’s household. Y/N Reader Q: Will the servant serve Isaac and Rebekah?

In the example above, I listed the page number (verse), type of scene (action or reaction), and date and setting first for easy reference. I also noted the name of the POV (point of view) character. Most important to me is the key paragraph in the middle, which cites the tension in the scene.

The summary for the first scene also includes the character’s story goal as well as his start and end goals for this particular scene, plus a Yes or No question to leave in the reader’s mind.

Components of a Scene Summary
1. Page Number: start page of scene in manuscript
2. Type of Scene: action or reaction
3. Date and Time and Setting of the scene
4. POV character if story is told from multiple Points of View
5. Number of the last scene this character was in and what she’s been doing since then.
6. Key paragraph: What does she want? What does she do, who does she talk to, and/or what does she say to try to get what she wants? What does the other person want? Where’s the tension, i.e. how do they clash? (From Sol Stein’s book on writing) How does she fail?
7. Number of her next scene.
8. Start goal
9. End goal
10. A Yes or No Reader Question: info you want the reader to worry about or long to know.

By the way, to solve my latest revision problems, I used my husband as a sounding-board and ended up weaving in several new scenes for my antagonist and inserting new interactions between him and other characters.

Caravaning: company on the journey
Caravaning: company on the journey

What Scene Summaries Do for You
• They give you a place to jot down ideas.
• They help you crystallize your ideas as you create scenes.
• They show your logic at a glance, i.e. how one scene leads to the next, the next leads to the one after that, and so on, which is useful when you need to change the order of scenes.
• They provide a timeline of events.
• They show an overview of your book so far, which gives you confidence as you create and revise scenes. (If you’re like me, it’s hard to keep every detail in your head.)
• They help you to find things.
• They show key plot points, such as surprises. (I color-code them.)
• They allow you to insert a scene where needed without destroying your flow of logic.
• They give you a place to note problems, e.g. I highlight in yellow the stuff I want to add to a scene and highlight in red something that’s not working or needs tension.
• They let you track subplots.
• They help you to quickly find answers to the questions your editor or others may ask.
• They show the structure of your book and the length of the start, middle, and end.

Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (2004), edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz
Writing the Breakout Novel (2002), by Donald Maass
The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing (1998), by Evan Marshall
Stein on Writing (1995), by Sol Stein

Thank you for reading. May God bless you as you write and revise, and may He grant you success!

Posted on September 13, 2016

8 thoughts on “Summarizing Your Scenes – A Road Map for Your Book

    1. Thanks for wading through my behind-the-scenes post, Diane! I wouldn’t say I’m glad I’m a writer – it can be frustrating at times – but if I didn’t write, I wouldn’t feel like myself. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s a passion, like gardening, except your work results in amazing flowers and vegetables. Are you glad you’re a gardener, or is it something you’re compelled to do?

      1. I’m glad I’m a gardener when the results are beautiful! The results, not the process, drive me. However, one must pay attention to the process in order to achieve beautiful results…in gardening or writing.

  1. Oh, it hurts sometimes considering all the possibilities. Good writing is hard work. I’m rather glad I’ve switched to poetry, though that takes a different kind of perseverance.

    1. You’re such an inspirational poet, Carolyn! I’m glad you switched to poetry, too. While I’m not a poet, I’ve been having fun writing limericks for my grandkids’ birthdays this year. Even that takes perseverance. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I’m exhausted just reading about the process but then I think I was exhausted before I started reading. It sounds like you need to be The Little Engine That Could and just keep chugging. It would be so easy to be The Little Engine That Quit.

    1. You’re so right – it would be easy to quit. Keep in mind that most writers probably don’t go to this much work. It’s just the way my brain works. Thanks for reading through this stuff, Laura. You’re a big encouragement to me.

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