The ‘Let’s get this straight’ scene – and how to use it with style

If you’re old enough to remember the TV series Charlie’s Angels, there was always a scene about halfway through where our feisty gals recapped everything they knew about the current case.

Crass though it sounds when described like that, viewers were probably grateful.

There are two reasons. First of all, it can provide a welcome breather from the hurly-burly – especially if the rest of the time has been spent in breathless danger. No matter how exciting your plot, readers can only take so much before they get numbed and will welcome a lull where everyone can relax.

Second – more obviously – it’s useful if you’ve got a complicated plot with lots of twists, turns, red herrings, thrills and spills. By having a ‘you are here’ moment, it lets the reader refocus on what’s been learned and what the stakes are.

But this can easily descend into exposition – explaining information for the sake of the audience in a way that seems unnatural. It can also be a yawn if it doesn’t move matters on in some way. Of course, your characters could spot a missing link or a deadline, which would galvanise everyone. But there are plenty of other ways to give this kind of scene more pizzazz.

Creating romantic sizzle

I saw the ‘let’s get it straight’ scene deployed very nicely in a manuscript I recently critiqued. Two characters who had been thrown together in a dangerous investigation found themselves with time to breathe – and to discuss what they should do about the trouble they were in. Also, the trust this had built up was leading to an intriguing sizzle between them. By this time, we’d have happily watched them discuss their laundry lists, because we were really reading their reactions.

Cementing a friendship

In Dark Lord : The Teenage Years by Jamie Thomson, the mysterious main character Dirk explains for the first time where he’s really from and what he’s trying to do. This is the first time he’s taken his friends into his confidence – and we’re waiting to see their reaction.

Planting seeds obliquely

In Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey is trying to clear Harriet Vane of murder. Half-way through there’s a scene where he reluctantly visits his family for Christmas and they talk about the case and what they think about Harriet (deft use of a recap, as Peter Wimsey doesn’t want to be there). They also talk about another family member who is – perhaps daringly- marrying a Jewish girl, which draws our attention to love across boundaries. It also plants the seeds for (spoiler alert!) his ultimate proposal to Harriet.

For laughs

Or you could be delightfully silly, like this scene from Carry On Screaming where the detectives list their clues and stand back to learn from the result.

Thanks for the top pic, wolfgangfoto

The ‘let’s get this straight’ scene is often necessary to keep an audience on track with a complex plot, but it can do so much more. Do you have any examples of it, good or clumsy? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Stephanie Brennan (@B4Steph) on June 30, 2012 - 8:32 pm

    Great advice! I recognize this and appreciate it every time I come across it in a novel, particularly the more difficult books, but the lighter ones as well. It’s a rest, as you say. I like that you included examples. Makes me want to pick up Dorothy Sayers. I haven’t read her in a long time.

    (I found you via Write on Edge.)

    • #2 by dirtywhitecandy on July 1, 2012 - 8:21 am

      Thanks, Stephanie! It’s funny that it sounds clumsy if you single it out, but actually it’s a vital ingredient.

  2. #3 by Jami Gold on June 30, 2012 - 8:42 pm

    Around the midpoint is also where we want to make sure readers fully understand the stakes and show protagonists commiting or recommiting to their line of action. This can sometimes be a good time to briefly touch on the issues the characters are facing.

    In my last completed novel, I didn’t have much of this at the midpoint, but actually had quite a bit at the pinch point between the midpoint and the break into act three. By that time, conflict had been upped for both the internal and external plots, and it was a great time to examine how her internal growth was affecting her external actions when the two overlapped.

    So maybe another category could be “show internal growth.” :)

    For example, in my story, the heroine had been freaking out about a possible external conflict, but along the way she was also falling for the hero. Around the 2/3 mark, the external conflict finally pops up strong enough to back her into a corner, but instead of freaking out, she trusts the hero to help her. I was able to have a page of her saying, yes, I always expected abc, and now the bad guy is doing xyz instead, but I trust that we’ll get through this. By doing that, I was able to make sure readers understood that the direction of the story had changed. From that point, the internal and the external work hand-in-hand toward the climax.

    • #4 by dirtywhitecandy on July 1, 2012 - 8:22 am

      Nice example, Jami – a point where we see how the relationship is developing and new bonds are forming.

  3. #5 by DRMarvello on July 1, 2012 - 12:10 am

    I’ll have to remain alert to that technique while I’m reading. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I’m sure I must have read books that used it. I didn’t use it in my first novel because that’s a type of scene I would have been concerned about including. As you say, it would be easy to tread into the exposition zone or interrupt the forward motion of the story. I’m still too new at this to feel confident I could “use it with style.”

    When I first started learning about fiction writing, I read so many warnings about “information dumps” that I may have become paranoid about including too much description. On the other hand, my critique partners and beta readers did a good job of telling me where more description was warranted, or where reminders of earlier events/people/places might be helpful.

    I’ll add the “let’s get this straight” scene to my bag of tricks for potential future use. Thanks for writing about it.

    • #6 by dirtywhitecandy on July 1, 2012 - 8:24 am

      Hi Daniel! This is an important point you raise. We get so worried about committing the sin of exposition that sometimes we fail to take the opportunity to explain when we need to. Glad to have added to your arsenal!

  4. #7 by ralfast on July 3, 2012 - 11:59 pm

    As long as you can avoid the “As You Know” trope, a recap can work wonders.

  5. #8 by marklanden on July 6, 2012 - 1:17 am

    Just wanted to say great post Roz. I’ve added it to my resource area and I have a soon-to-be-written scene that I didn’t realize I needed to use this technique with until I read this. Awesome

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 8, 2012 - 4:10 pm

      Thanks, Mark! It’s funny, we don’t realise these ‘staple’ scenes exist until someone points it out. Then you’ll start seeing them everywhere.

  6. #10 by Rich Weatherly on July 12, 2012 - 6:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. In technical writing, we called this an interim summary.
    I’ve used the technique in my book for the reasons you mention. It helps keep the reader on the right track and reinforce your message.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 12, 2012 - 7:18 pm

      Thanks, Rich. When I was writing the post I wasn’t sure what to call it! But the fact that it exists in other kinds of writing reinforces the idea that it’s a basic narrative need.

      • #12 by Rich Weatherly on July 13, 2012 - 1:12 pm

        You welcome, Roz. I couldn’t agree more. Not only is it an effective technical writing tool, it should be standard practice in training materials.
        Glad you shared it!

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