Lesson No. 1: Essential and Concrete Details: Summary, Scene and the Hero’s Journey


Summary with Focus on Audio Sensory

In the above stick figure adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey scene, “Odysseus and the Sirens,” the viewer experiences a summarized, general viewpoint. There is a boat. What kind of boat? We don’t know. There are a few people. Some oars. Water. One person seems to be lashed to a mast. Why? The boat appears to be coming from the East going West and there is blank canvas to the West. Is something to come? Then the music begins. There is a woman, a mermaid? She sits on a rock. The music appears to be coming from her. In the summary, our senses anchor into the generality of the visual elements, trying to make out more detail, but then we are quickly diverted and immersed in the lullaby and the water. If the intention of the scene were to focus on the auditory aspects then the scene has done its job. Unfortunately, stick figures give us very little characterization, the bones of connective narrative. Where this scene encourages the viewer to remember the siren song, it does little to connect the viewer to the characters and setting.

Writing summary is similar. The writer will make mention of the general artifacts: boat, people, oars, water, a woman with a tail, a song… 

Now, consider a more detailed characterization and setting in the following film excerpt adapted from the same work.


Detailed Scene with Multi-Sensory Focus

In this scene, we can see the faces of the characters, the tones in their voices. They appear sea worn, anxious, dirty and sweaty. They probably don’t smell so good. Their clothing has a Greco-Roman feel and they are interacting with reverence for their captain. The lashings appear to be leather and we know they are putting wax in their ears. They speak of the sirens, what no man should hear. With every detail, the viewer connects with the characters. Even the boat, which we can discern is probably wooden, is out of view as we are close in on the men and their conversation. We can see, hear, feel and smell the men in this tense moment. Then the sirens begin their menacing “song.”

In this more detailed scene, we experience a more literal translation of Homer’s Odyssey, “in scene,” versus summary. Now, let’s take a look at a detailed and alternatively stylized scene.


Detailed and Alternatively Stylized Scene with Multi-Sensory Focus

In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? the Odyssey turns Appalachian. In this scene, we have concrete details: women washing clothes and singing their enticing lullaby, the men dirty, sweaty, travel worn, a stream, rocks… In this alternate telling, the sirens physically interact with the men. The sirens are beautiful, their song sweet.

Aside from the auditory representations, both the second and the third film adaptations of “Odysseus and the Sirens” are faithful representations of the first stick figure summary. The stick figure summary, though successful in allowing the viewer to focus on the auditory, leaves a great deal of detail out if one is writing a literary scene, though, the stick figures would be perfect for a light summary rendition on YouTube, and the simplicity can be enjoyable. 

It is the writer’s job to balance sensory detail and summary within the narrative. Both are necessary in creating a well-developed narrative, and the summary sections can be effective ligaments for the bones of the narrative, the more detailed and immersive scene work. But consider which of the above adaptations stay with you longer? Which of them transports you more thoroughly? 


  • The Odyssey: The Odyssey is an excellent foundational reading for any writer. The every-person aspect of the work can be found in most literary narratives and can help a writer consider individual characters from a global point of view. Also, The Odyssey framework and arc is an excellent study on scene work as each “Book” is a narrative within the overall narrative.

Writing Exercise

Choose a summary from your novel draft. Draw it as stick figures. Consider which details have been left out and “fill in” the lines. Rewrite the summary with a close-in character, multi-sensory focus.

Next, choose a detailed scene. Rework the scene more generally and quickly as a ligament summary for two other scenes. Consider how the two other scenes compare and contrast and find similar elements in these scenes. Now, flesh out this element in the summary.

Example: In the above stick figure summary, Odysseus and his men have left Circe, the witch, and the lotus eaters and are heading toward certain death: the sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, Hades… Both the before and after scenes include danger and “female wiles.” Odysseus’ summary journey between enticement (Circe, lotus eaters, siren song) and danger (addiction, death) is a boat on water with a man lashed to a mast as they attempt to return home (safety, comfort, families).

In this summary, the character focus is the “everyman” lashed to his boat mast as he journeys from danger, through danger and toward more danger as he tries to return home. He is virile, wooden, upright and hindered by his own self-inclicted impotence. From a critical standpoint, the generalized summary allows the reader a clearer view of the “everyman” aspect of Odysseus. The “everyman” leaves the safety and comfort of home for war in Troy. And when he finishes and wins his war, ego soaring, hubris abounding, he finds it nearly impossible to return to the comfort and safety he left, though he would seem to know the way. He’s been set off course and plagued with temptations, monsters and natural disasters until he is effectively lost. And right now, he has lashed himself to the one vehicle that might save him, and yet, this one vehicle is at the mercy of Poseidon’s ocean, the God whom “everyman” has pissed off and is the reason for this 20 year wandering predicament. Just as “everyman” curses and rallies against his God, he lashes himself to his God’s mercy and wrath, stuck between abutting dangers and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s cycle away from then back to his paradisiacal home.

This sort of generalized summary can be useful in literary narrative when it is wielded craftily. But, again, the bones of an excellent narrative are character-based, detailed scene work and the writer should be wary of generalizations unless they are essential and serve a greater purpose within the overall narrative. It is often best to write early drafts with a constant eye toward detailed scenes, excavating every detail and sensory the writer can unearth about the characters, places and conflicts. Later, in revision, the writer can then more easily assess pacing and transitions, identifying areas within the narrative that will be best served by summary versus close in and detailed scene work.  

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