Monday, March 27, 2006

Summary or Scene?

A few more words about "A Better Angel," by Chris Adrian. I've run this story through my little structure analyzer, and here's the chart:

(Click on the chart for a better look.)

Note, once again, the predominance of scene (red bars) over summary (green bars). The interesting thing about this story is that even in the summary sections, Adrian has consistently integrated elements of scene; I could have justifiably tagged even more of the story as scene and less as summary. For example, here's a section I marked as summary:
Some nights as a resident, I would withdraw into the bathroom and leave the intern to flounder and drown, later claiming that I’d never got the frantic pages when in fact I had turned off my pager and was sitting on the toilet with my face in my hands or taking little hits of whatever I was really into that month. There was a bathroom near the elevator on my father’s floor of the hospital, a nice one-person arrangement with a lock on the door.

The angel was there in just a few moments—I never know what delays her, when she can travel at the speed of guilt and sometimes seems to be everywhere at once. She berated me while I hid my face, her voice making the little room seem very full, all the “What do you think you’re doing?”s and “You get back there”s seeming to bounce off the white walls in discrete packages of sound. I am not this sort of doctor, I said to my hands. I am not any sort of doctor and I don’t know what to do about what’s back there in that room. And she said that even if you are the sort of doctor who doesn’t know anything about medicine, and even if you passed your certifying exams only because you paid a certain Dr. Gupta to bypass the pathetic security measures taken against cheats and impostors by the American Board of Pediatrics, you can still recognize a patient at the extremes of abandonment and grief, and even you can do the smallest human thing to improve his lot.
Overall, this is summary, but it's concrete summary. The reader can see the narrator with his head in his hands, talking to the angel. This is summary, but it includes little abstraction.

The point is this: we lose readers when we become abstract. Some summary is necessary, but find ways to enliven it with concrete details and you'll keep readers interested longer.