Adversary Versus Adversity

I think my last couple of posts on scenes managed to confuse a few folks, so let’s look at things from a slightly different angle.

A novel isn’t split totally between scenes and their sequels. Other types of material are utilized as well. So there might be segments devoted to description of a setting or a character. There might be sections centered around providing information or background. There can be condensed portions where the author skims over a huge event–such as the WWII invasion of Normandy–without supplying a lot of detail.

Let’s focus for now on story action:

Dynamic story action can be presented in two ways.

One way is through a scene. The protagonist is pitted against a sentient, reasoning, foe or one that’s intelligently directed.

The other option is known as narrative summary. This is where the protagonist is pursuing a goal and encountering obstacles, but–despite harrowing danger–the story action is not actually a scene.

Now, let’s define and differentiate these two forms of action a little better.

A scene pits the protagonist against an adversary, right here, right now, and right in the protagonist’s face. The scene focuses on that encounter without summary. Every moment, every line of dialogue, and every move/countermove between the two characters is depicted.

So, for example, if James Bond is standing handcuffed in front of Dr. No and they are sparring verbally as one demands information and the other refuses to supply it, we have a scene.

Narrative summary pits the protagonist against adversity or obstacles or random bad luck. The event is summarized, supplying the gist of the action that’s happening without depicting every moment. Dialogue may be indirect or omitted entirely.

An example of this would be when James Bond is crawling through Dr. No’s horrific tunnel and meets dangerous obstacle after dangerous obstacle. With each new danger, Bond’s predicament grows worse. The suspense level increases, and audience sympathy for Bond rises. But he’s not in a scene.

Each form serves a purpose. Each can be quite effective. Mixing them up varies the pace within the story and keeps things from becoming monotonous and predictable.

If there’s no antagonist present, then utilize narrative summary.

If the antagonist steps out through a hidden door and blocks the passageway, then you’re in a scene and should slow things down fractionally to present the give-and-take conflict occurring between your protagonist and his adversary.


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5 responses to “Adversary Versus Adversity

  1. Since I’m the thick fool whose comments seem to have inspired this, I feel obliged to follow with a question about whether narrative summary’s rules.

    I feel I’ve got a handle on what a SCENE needs (POV, Goal, Conflict, and Disaster), and I’ve read about the elements of effective SEQUEL (emotion, reason/review, decision, choice). Are there some good guides on what makes narrative summary work?

    I dropped the first Lord of the Rings volume several times over a period of years out of deep boredom generated while the characters were traveling and nothing was happening. This was, I’m sure, the power of narrative summary at work. But I know it need not be so fatal to readers, especially if the dose is kept modest at each ingestion. (Tolkein’s was, I think, a case of OD rather than a bad prescription altogether; there just was too much for me at a given stretch before Something Happened or Somebody Decided Something.)

    When I think of Butcher’s first (published) book, I recall a section in which Dresden and Bob cooperate to make a potion. This isn’t the scene in which Dresden tries to resist Bob’s demand he make a love potion, but the non-confrontational brewing of the thing once Dresden’s rationalized that there’s *cough* no real danger *cough* in caving to Bob’s demand. In this sort of narrative I see opportunity to shed light on a character, illustrate the rules of the story (whether social, magical, etc.), and flavor the tale with color (I assume it’s narrative summary that leads readers on all the journey segments through all the exotic landscapes that give fantasy novels their local color). But I remember dropping Tolkein, and I worry about the consequences of getting it wrong.

    I would like to use this more as a glue between scenes and sequels than as a backbone. However, my current WIP’s protagonist early on is tricked/duped into undertaking an awful chore, and I want readers to really get the chore, its dangers, and the eventual relief at it’s being accomplished. (Of course it must go awfully wrong repeatedly before it’s done, which is part of what I feel the reader needs to see/feel). The things that go wrong spur scenes and sequels, but after each scene/sequel interlude the hated task awaits, yet incomplete (or done wrong — oops). I don’t want to cheat readers of the trouble this causes the protagonist, or of the chance to see the protagonist (a) react to setbacks, (b) react to risks that weigh personal inconvenience against risk to others, and (c) think about how to apply the rules of the fantasy world. So I don’t see how to avoid the narrative summary. What I want to do is to understand (as with scene and sequel) what rules guide effective construction of narrative summary. You know — so I reduce the odds of botching it.

    So … any rules?

    • Ahem … I was trying to shield you a bit, but since you claim responsibility for this issue ….:)

      Yes, Tolkien overuses narrative summary. It’s quite useful, but too much of it for too long in any given section of a story results in reader detachment. It’s ideal for the following purposes: explanations, character background, shifting locale, travel (in a couple of paragraphs or less, as in … by the next feast day Babu and Muluk had crossed the mountains, sojourned a while in the desert, and found their way home again … ), and moving swiftly over passages of time (as in … after three years of searching, the elves disbanded, too discouraged to continue. Although most of them turned back, intending to return to their home forest, Samestikeri liked the pleasant valley he’d found and decided to stay. In less than a fortnight, he’d laid the stone foundation of his cabin and begun building its framework from the logs he’d felled …)

      Narrative summary can also be used when you decide to cut a scene without deleting its content entirely; in these cases, the story event is simply condensed into a short passage of summary. (What Butcher was doing.) Sometimes, writers condense what would have better played in a full scene. That may be because an editor ordered the book to be shortened.

      Narrative summary can be used, briefly, within sequels as a review. Usually, though, it appears as part of the setup for a scene, or it may open a chapter.

      Remember to use it briefly at any given point, and I think you’ll discover how useful it can be. Just never over-rely on it.


      • It’s the briefly bit that’s worrying me. If the adversity that changes the character is a puzzle or infection, there seems to be a limit to how far it can be shortened before a reader won’t believe the seriousness of the even to the character, and believe the transformation. Must one give up on this kind of problem as a major turning point for the character’s evolution?

        I understand that the Villain is the best challenge for the character, but I worry about the world if other challenges are off-limits.

        Suppose a reckless driver injures a bicyclist in the wilderness, crashing his car in the process. If he’s got to take care of the bicyclist while also looking after their physical needs while awaiting rescue, the troubles caused by his inept first aid and his difficulty hunting are as much an impact on the driver as the conversations that occur while the bicyclist it lucid. Right? And the alligator attack, for excitement during the amateurish medical treatment, maybe. The bicyclist isn’t really the active adversary for a lot of this – even if he’ll sue later, they are temporarily in alignment that the bicyclist should be cared for properly, lest it turn into a worse problem for everyone (though it may occur to the driver to do something to ensure the suit won’t go well, if the only adverse witness disappears, but hopefully our protagonist wants to do the right thing). In a scifi world, I’d be tempted to give detailed description how the tech worked – to show how inept the driver was in applying it to do what competent users would be able to work out, or to show how the driver fought to make it work despite that critical diagnostic components (lost in the wreck) rendered the work risky.

        So in a story-section like that there’s people, and adversity, but maybe no adversary (apart from night-time predators, which might also heighten adversity through the protagonist’s ongoing sleep deprivation) until the cops show up to write a ticket. And if the driver isn’t trying to flee the cops – but is relieved at the rescue – is the cop even an adversary? Rescue into police custody for a driving offense feels like a good “yes, but …” place to close the curtain on a chapter. (Especially if the beer cans were all closed at the time of the wreck, and the only drinker was the bicyclist, who asked for them as anesthetic. Which leads to the protagonist being wrongfully accused of driving drunk and causing a wreck under the influence.) Is adversity presented like this doomed to fail?

        I would have thought elements like these should be able to support a reader through a sizable section of a story. There’s mutual peril, choice how to weigh one’s interests against a stranger’s, choice regarding one’s willingness to risk one’s life experimenting with unfamiliar tech to maybe-or-maybe-not save a stranger who might in fact become a bad adversary later, anticipation of bad outcomes from every choice (so opportunity to explore how the character weighs them), and so on. Ignoring the scene/sequel and need-of-an-adversary advice, my instinct would be that this smells like opportunity. But I ignore good advice at my peril.

        So …

        If the character will need to use the sci-fi tech later in a scene that requires the reader know “how it works” (so its behavior won’t feel like a cheat) then it’d be hard to skip the narrative that shows how the tech works (or how it misfires, which the protagonist may use to advantage later against an adversary). And why not show the character wrestling with the questions about values and priorities that are raised by the situation? Is this scheme to lay out how the tech works – and how the character behaves in the face of adversity, and when no-one is looking, and while all alone in the dark – inevitably doomed for want of adversaries? Or because the narrative summary will take a long time to lay out?

        I’m happy to interrupt the first-aid sequence with night-time terrors involving armed coyotes leading immigrants across a defended border, crooks who think the protagonist is snooping their illicit drug lab, the need to go hunt for water in the wilderness (and escape dangerous crazy locals who control the only well), and so forth, so there’s several successive waves of potentially-related adversaries while the long adversity sequence plays out. But if I can’t get through the crummy-first-aid sequence to show the character learning about the tech, and the bicyclist’s ambitions and expectations, and showing how the two build their relationship, and showing how far the protagonist will go to “do the right thing” by a stranger – and why this protagonist would bother – then I worry about my whole theory how to tell the story.

        Is this a disaster waiting to happen?
        Is there a place to go to read up on how to use/not to use narrative summary?
        Is there something other than narrative summary that seems to describe the problem I’m worried about tackling properly?

        Mind you, I’m not actually writing a sci-fi. But now I’m tempted to write one about a driver who gets stranded by his wrecked car after he inadvertently injures a competitive athlete bicycling across the desert, and who manages to save only about a third of the good things in his car before it blows up with his communications gear, leaving him three days to survive before someone notices he didn’t arrive as scheduled and sends someone to search. While a vicious, armed coyote leads a paying band of immigrants into what they don’t realize is a slave den operated by the future’s version of meth-heads in the desert. The week before he’s scheduled to be married, maybe. And the bicyclist is attractive, and makes him think about the safe choices he’s made in life, to settle down with his moneyed fiancée. Hmm.

        Next time, maybe 🙂

  2. I think you might be confusing random cool story events that are exciting and dangerous for the characters with directed, connected story events that would be exciting and dangerous. Avoid the random stuff! It gets you off-track and over-reliance on it begins to be too coincidental for reader belief.

    If you have adversity that’s huge and has consequences, then turn it into a scene and incorporate it into the plot.

    But don’t just cook up a series of nifty problems for your protagonist that aren’t coming from the villain–or from a subplot with a lesser antagonist of its own.

    Say that you’re writing a story about a man dreading the upcoming confrontation with his elderly father over moving Pop to an assisted living facility. Pop is crochety and hard to deal with at the best of times. Pop and Hero have an iffy relationship anyway, but Hero knows Pop is getting too old and infirm to manage his home without help.

    Now, on the drive to Pop’s house (in another city than where Hero lives), let’s say that Hero sees a wrecked car in the road ahead. The car has skidded partway into a water-filled ditch. There’s a wounded alligator in the road, apparently hit by the car. There’s the driver, semi-conscious and half-hanging out of the car in the water. There’s another alligator swimming toward the injured driver.

    Hero slams on the brakes, activates his hazard flashers, and runs to help. He may have to confront the injured alligator in the road first before he can get to the injured driver.

    Exciting? You bet!

    Hero may be able to save a life. He may get his foot bitten off for his trouble. You can have multiple things happening here with lots of blood, pain, and danger. Hero will be tied up for hours with the authorities. He may have to be rushed to the hospital.

    If he’s been injured himself, and loses a foot, then he’s going to be hospitalized and spend weeks in rehab. Consequences to him? Sure!

    But what happened to your story about Pop? You’ve lost it. You have here a split-focus with two storylines that don’t really connect.

    So by reaching for this wild and crazy event, you’ve dropped the drama you began with. A son and father quarrel seems pretty tame after alligator wrangling, so how does a writer make the quarrel involving for readers? Through emotion and insight into human nature. Through giving readers a way to connect with these two men who are caught up in a very human problem. The gators just don’t belong here.

    As for more reading, I think you’re familiar with the Bickham texts. Have you gone through STORY by Robert McKee? He’s talking primarily about screenplay writing, so his terminology has somewhat different meanings than the way novelists interpret these labels, but the gist of good storytelling is always the same.

    You might also look at David Morrell’s book on writing.


  3. “If you have adversity that’s huge and has consequences, then turn it into a scene and incorporate it into the plot.”

    That was my concern: can adversity ground a scene, if you can’t find an antagonist in it? (I thought “scene” meant “antagonist opposes protagonist” and that other adversity was narrative summary.) I want problems directly connected to the Big Problem, not random alligator attacks, but one of the protag’s first big problems hasn’t got a cackling villain behind it. It’s the protagonist who’s to blame for the lousy mess that must be righted (at least, if good will triumph – which readers thus far seem to hope for). I’m just worried that the development of this problem toward disaster/resolution is not a “scene” if it hasn’t got a separate human antagonist.

    When I’ve asked people about the chapters I’m worried about they say the “antagonist” is the protagonist, who created the mess, and they don’t seem bothered by this. So am I overthinking the problem?

    I just don’t want to botch it 😉

    Have ordered McKee’s book; it’d been on my would-like-to-read list for a while. Thanks for the nudge 🙂

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