The Mark Blog

Making It Matter

Artist: Brett Amory

In The Mark workshop last week, we discussed the relationship between scene and summary. A novel, Antoine told us, should strike the perfect balance of the two—showing and telling—as determined by the voice and world of the book.

Since I began writing fiction, I’ve been a devout disciple of Show. And as a reader, I’m realizing, I'm quite visually oriented. I like to see where I am, and whom I’m with, in the world of a story. Scenes are meant to show the reader what is happening and being felt in a particular instant. But context, as I'm now learning, opens the story’s lens so we can see why something matters and care about the character that's involved. In fiction, the balance of scene and summary lets us both see the actions and feel their reverberations.

I’ve heard, time and again, that reading nourishes the writer's imagination and work. This week, I decided to re-read Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, a novel I love and have come to cite as a guiding influence on my work, but which—I realized—I’d only read, thoroughly, once. While rereading it, I’ve been particularly alert to the craft questions that are at the forefront of my mind. What is portrayed in the moment? Conversely, what is condensed, synthesized, and summarized? Where, between these two modes, does the story soar most, for me?

Coetzee’s novel, which takes place in South Africa, is the story of a professor who loses his job and attempts to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. All of the summary is germane to the action. The oscillation between forward narrative movement and recapitulation is subtle because, as written by Coetzee, the two are pertinent and intertwined. And, in this way, the scope of the story gains depth while simultaneously moving forward. Compared to many books, Disgrace shows through scenes more than it tells, but when Coetzee tells, he tells interestingly, which is perhaps why the text so effectively moves me as a reader—and why I admire him so much as a writer.

As John Gardner said, the aim of fiction is to create for the reader a “vivid and continuous dream.” My aim in my writing is to strike the balance between scene—showing the dream—and summary—making it matter.