I blogged a while back about showing versus telling from a cinematic point of view. Well, luckily--or maybe unluckily--for you, I had another epiphany about the relationship between literature and film.
Books on writing spend almost as much time on the differences between narrative summary and scenes as they do on the nuances of showing and telling, maybe because the two ideas are so closely related. In short, narrative summary is a section of text with little or no dialogue. It summarizes a series of narrative events (hence the name), and it usually covers a longer period of time. Scenes, on the other hand, are second-by-second accounts of what’s happening to the characters in that moment. They tend to be rich with dialogue, and the conflict level within them is high.
In other words, narrative summary tends to tell whereas scenes tend to show.
So how does all of this relate to movies? That’s where my epiphany comes in. I realized that the cinematic equivalent of narrative summary is a montage and the cinematic equivalent of a scene is, well, a scene. While montages can be helpful tools when used in moderation, interesting, tension-filled scenes are the very building blocks of film--and they should be the building blocks of a book.
I mean, imagine a movie told entirely in montage. Boring as a documentary on growing grass, right? (Or maybe growing grass is really interesting on the molecular level or something. I’m not sure.) Now imagine a movie told with half montages and half scenes. Still pretty awful. In fact, even if the split were closer to sixty/forty, or eighty/twenty, you’d probably still be pretty bored. That’s because, as I mentioned in that other post, movies really have to show almost everything if they want to hold our interest. They have a few telling techniques, like montage and voiceover, but for the most part, if a director wants you to know something, he or she has to show it.
As writers, we should be the same way. Narrative summary can be useful in certain situations, like when we're transitioning from one scene to the next, but with narrative summary, less is always more. The meat of a book is in the scenes.