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.