How to Transform Exposition and Summary into Scene 2

YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD the mantra, “Show don’t tell,” a million and one times, and though exposition and summary play important roles in memoir and should not be excluded entirely, a book that is all summary and no scene is a yawner at best.

Imagine going to the theater to watch a movie in which a narrator drones on about the story’s events while showing various related but disconnected images. I’ve seen documentaries like that, and I never stay engaged enough to make it through to the end, even when the topic of the documentary interests me. On the other hand, a documentary that combines narrative with scenes during which action is played out is engaging. The scenes draw me into the documentary’s story through the re-creation of real life events.

This is precisely what you need to do, and do well, in order for your story to have an impact.

Yet, many new writers find scene writing challenging. I think part of the challenge comes from not understanding the fundamental differences between “scene,” “summary,” and “exposition.” So, before I go into how to transform summary and exposition into scene, let’s clearly define each type of prose.


Scene is defined as action occurring in a specific place and time.

For example: “One warm Saturday afternoon, I was enjoying my usual stroll through the neighborhood, when my neighbor’s dog suddenly charged at me from the other side of the street, barking and growling.” In this sentence, we have the makings of scene — a time (Saturday afternoon); a place (the neighborhood); and action (the narrator strolling and the neighbor’s dog charging).

Of course, you need more than that to engage your readers. A well-written scene uses sensory details to draw us into the situation and into our characters’ minds and bodies so that we experience the events vicariously through their eyes.

A fully developed scene requires you to slow down and depict an event as if in slow motion, describing each detail, and may take from a few hundred to thousands of words to portray on the page.

To develop the scene with the dog, I would need to add description, inner and outer dialogue, sounds smells, the narrator’s physical and emotional reactions, and the final consequences or conclusion of the situation. 


Summary condenses a period of time into a shorter passage.

Summary may contain sensory details, but the main difference between scene and summary is that there is no specific time and place in which the events take place.

For example: “During summer vacations my father would take my family camping among the pines at Lake Tahoe. On our first morning, my brothers and I would always wake at dawn to fish from the shore and dare each other to plunge headfirst into the icy water.”

Notice that we have a place — Lake Tahoe — but no specific date or time. Only the general period of  “summer vacations.”

How do you know if what you have written is scene or summary? If your passage contains a lot of “we would” or “I would,” or “would always,” then it is most likely a summary.


Exposition is when the narrator tells us what they think or feel about what is happening, or to provide context for events.

In memoir, exposition is also used for reflection.

For example, if I rewrite the previous example to: “When I was young, our family didn’t have enough money for fancy vacations traveling by air and staying in resort hotels. Instead, my father would take us camping, usually to Lake Tahoe. There, my brothers and I would wake at dawn to fish from the shore and later, when the day warmed, dare each other to jump into the icy water. These are among some of my favorite memories of our times together.”

Do you see the exposition in that paragraph? “Our family didn’t have enough money for fancy vacations…,” and “These are among some of my favorite memories of our times together.” These statements reveal the thoughts and attitudes of the narrator, and are not part of the actual events.

Another example of exposition is describing someone’s character by telling us about that person — “my cousin was a rough and violent man” — instead of revealing that person’s character through his actions and words within the context of a scene.

Now that we have defined these three components, let’s look at when and how to transform exposition or summary into scene.


When to expand summary and exposition to scene

  • If your summary glosses or passes over an important event, then you need to expand it into scene. If your summary provides context for a scene or covers a time period between two scenes and does not contain or gloss over an event that is important to your story, you may want to leave the summary.  (See When to Use Summary to Move Your Story Along for more about how to use summary to advantage.)
  • If your exposition — any place in your story when you are talking about the events, rather than portraying the events — can be show in scene, then do so. The less overt the exposition, the better. And if you decide that you do need to include that reflective voice in your work, be sure to insert exposition judiciously, in pieces rather than in big chunks of prose, which will most likely cause your readers to skip over it to the next bit of action.


How to start

Step One

Using 2 different color highlighters, analyze a passage or vignette you’ve already written, marking exposition in one color and summary in the other color, leaving scenes unmarked.

Here’s an example (exposition is shown in purple and summary in green):

Married at eighteen, I went back to school at age 32 to earn my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. In addition to working full-time and raising three children, I took on a full-time school schedule. Looking back now, I am amazed that my family and I survived that period of life. After a full day at work, I would commute home, cook dinner, help the kids with their homework, and then attend classes. I often read and wrote papers into the early hours of the morning, with occasional all-night sessions. Yet, I loved school; I felt as though the blade of my mind was honed and sharpened by the intellectual edges of my teachers and other students. My thinking had never been sharper, my writing never better. So what if the housework wasn’t done? So what if I wasn’t getting enough sleep? After all, something had to go, right?

Review the summary sentences in your passage. Does the summary include events that could (and should) be depicted in scene?

In the passage above, instead of writing “After a full day at work, I would commute home, cook dinner…” and so on, I could write a scene that would show me arriving home exhausted from work one evening, dealing with the kids and dinner and domestic chores while my husband and I argued about the undone chores, and then, after all that, sitting down to begin writing a paper.

Wouldn’t that be much more powerful than simply telling the reader what I was going through during that period of time in my life?

What part of your summary could become a scene? Circle that part of your passage.


Step 2

Next, review the exposition statements. Which could you eliminate altogether, and which could you incorporate into your scene?

In my original passage, the statement that I loved school and felt as though the blade of my mind was honed and sharpened could become part of my internal dialogue as I begin working on my paper and reflecting on what was driving me to work so hard for my degree. The questions about housework could become part of the argument between my husband and me during the scene (if we did, in fact, argue about the housework). And the statement about being amazed that we lived through all of that should be cut altogether. If I write a compelling scene, my reader will understand how difficult our survival was without my having to state it so blatantly.

Does this all make sense?

Apply this now to your own passage. What part of your exposition could be shown rather than told? Circle that part or parts. Which part or parts could be cut altogether? Draw a line through those. What part(s) need to remain as they are? Draw a line under those.


Step 3

Now, go ahead and write your new scene, expanding upon the events in your summary and showing the sentiments expressed by the exposition statements you’ve circled through description, action, or dialogue. Cut out the exposition you crossed through and insert the exposition you’ve underlined only where relevant. Often these pieces of exposition are reflective in nature and are best placed at the beginning or ending of the scene; otherwise, you run the risk of interrupting the flow of the scene.

If it helps, start your scene with a prompt, such as, “One day…” or “Once…”. Example using my summary passage: “One evening, after a particularly grueling, bumper-to-bumper commute home, I was assaulted as soon as I came through the front door by the voices of my two sons arguing, as they often did . . . [followed by the resulting dialogue, action, etc.].”


In conclusion

Identifying which of the summary and exposition passages would enhance your story if expanded into scene is your first step. Next, think about a particular day or situation in your memory that exemplifies the situation you are summarizing and write out that scene, using action, dialogue, and sensory-based description to convey the thoughts and feelings you were attempting to communicate with exposition.

Your story will be more compelling and have more emotional impact as a result.


Learn more about how to write engaging scenes and when to use summary to best effect.


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