Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Pixar’s Up to Teach Scene and Summary


Mentor Text: Up. Dir. Pete Docter. Pixar, 2009.

Story is the lifeblood of all good writing. But students don’t realize its power until they are explicitly shown how it works across all genres of writing.

An editorial tells the story of an issue. A memoir tells the story of a life. An analysis tells the story of how something works.

Students needs ways of talking about story before they recognize it as a powerful tool for all kinds of writing.

In Writing the Memoir, Judith Barrington suggests that there are two ways to move through a story: scene and summary. She uses cinematic terms to define each:

“The summary is the long shot–the one that pulls back to a great distance, embracing first the whole house, then the street, then the neighborhood, and then, becoming an aerial shot, it takes in the whole city and maybe the surrounding mountains too. This view can include a number of details, but all seen from a distance, none apparently more important than another.

The scene, on the other hand, is more like the close-up, the camera zooming in through the kitchen window, picking out the two figures talking at the table and going up really close to the face of first one speaker then the other while the audience hears each one speak” (82).

She goes on to write that scene is used to recreate a specific moment in time whereas summary is used to cover a lot of time in just a few paragraphs.

Students need to see what this looks like. They need concrete examples of scene and summary. They need to be shown how scene and summary play off one another to create a whole.

I use two clips from a Pixar favorite, Up, to illustrate the interplay of scene and summary. These clips become our mentor texts as we think about how scene and summary cut across all genres of writing.

Students know the movie, so when I show them the clips, they are able to focus on how the writer moves through time to tell the story of Carl and Ellie.

Here’s how it works:

First I tell them that scene and summary are the basic building blocks of good writing. I define each element, pointing out the distinct features of each. For example, scene often begins with the words “One day” and features dialogue and vivid description. Summaries feature verbs that show repeated actions or a series of actions and are used to connect scenes. I emphasize that summaries often include vivid description as well.

Then I show them a scene from Up. (Watch through 1:53.)

I ask them to jot down notes about what they notice and what they think the purpose of the scene is.

Then I show them a summary, the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together.

They jot down observations and think about why the director has chosen to give an abridged version of those years.

Through our discussion, we hit on another important element of storytelling: pacing. Students begin to see that writers speed up or slow down according to their purpose. The scene in which Ellie meets Carl must be a scene because it introduces the audience to the main characters and tells the story of how they met. The montage must be a summary because the movie is less about Carl and Ellie and more about Carl’s struggle to do right by Ellie after her death.

I wrap-up the lesson by inviting students to revisit mentor texts we’ve studied previously to discuss how writers use scene and summary to move through time. Over the course of a year, here are some observations students might make about the use of scene and summary:

  • Scene is often used at the beginning of an editorial to present an issue.

  • Summary is the dominant mode in a critical book review. We want to show the arc of the story without giving everything away. But we might use a scene as “proof” that what we’ve noticed about character is true.

  • Infographics use data and facts to tell a story.

  • In a literary analysis essay, we use summary to direct the reader’s attention to a specific part of the text. Then we use scene to “zoom in” and analyze the word, line, etc. Instead of “One day…” we write “In this line…”

Other ways to use these mentor texts:

  • Rebekah has had success using the first episode of The Walking Dead to teach show don’t tell. I’m imagining using the dialogue-less montage to illustrate the same principle. How does the filmmaker show us the love between Carl and Ellie in this montage?

  • The first clip could be used to show students how to use dialogue and action to create vivid characters.

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