Bridge to Story

The Bane and Joys of Summary Narration

When using Narrative Summary your story events are condensed. The reader is told what happens, rather that having it shown.  In the fiction-writing axiom "Show, don't tell" the "tell part" is often in the form of summarization from the narrator’s voice. 

The main advantage of summary is that it takes up less space. Writing a lot of action or a lot of summarization could be either right or wrong – it depends what the scene is about or the importance of the storytelling in what it is you're trying to get across with more or less detail.

Factors such as rhythm, pace, and tone come into play. The objective is to get the right balance between telling vs. showing, action vs. summarization.

I prefer reading work that is heavy on character's action and dialog and very light on narrative summary. You may feel differently. The choice is yours. Just be sure you aren't writing all summary narration by accident.

Example Toggle

Example:

Here, we’ve got a novice who didn’t even realize that this was summary narration. She wrote this accidentally, thinking she was giving the reader an opening scene in these 74 words.

 Juliet’s driving across the country to California. She takes a drink every time she moves from one freeway onto another. Numbered exchanges keep going by. But keeping sober isn’t easy.

 The music she’s listening to is bringing up some sad stuff, so she takes another drink and tries to out-sing the singer. It’s the 2nd hour of hearing the same song. Getting woozy she pulls over and in a second she’s passed out cold.  

She figured verb usages like: Driving, takes a drink, moves from one, going by, keeping sober, listening to, bringing up, takes, tries, hearing, getting, pulls, and passed out was a good way of showing things to the reader.

After, a Lessening of Summary Narration:

Here’s what happens when she’s asked to unpack that summary narration and give the reader more things we can see, or watch this character of hers do—right in front of us:

Juliet’s face is cool and wind-whipped in the night. She drives, window down, headed toward the Pacific. The glass bottle she’s set between her slim thighs lays snug and patient, and she raises it for a short sip with very passing interchange she’s successful segueing onto. After hooking up with the 90 past Cleveland, it should just be a matter of staying on the highway. And conscious. 

This second item is slowly eroding with each drink she takes from the fifth she continues to hoist.

 Lifting the bottle again, she’s maybe four more slips from cracking the seal on the next one in the bag. But she’s not aware of that yet. Some girl singer on the stereo sings ‘You Don’t Know Me’, Juliet’s set this song on a state-wide loop, and now she massacres lyrics once again as she crosses into Illinois and that upcoming blackout; luckily she nearly loses her grip on the fifth, and hating to spill good rye, she pulls over. That frugal move saves her as the lights go out with a snap. And with them, comes– nothingness.

 Now we know the time of day – night. The drinking is spread over a few paragraphs now, and we can see her character go from being okay to being dead drunk. The ‘telling’ has expanded into storytelling and now comes to 183 pretty descriptive words over the Before version. We can still hear the narrator, but now they are giving us lots to see, by using senses, and more to understand about the scene and the driver, Juliet.

To Lessen the Summary Narration

This novice tried to show the subtext of how the girl is feeling about things as she drives drunk though so many states.

If you plan further rewrites to this scene you could next include some internal dialogue, if the writer wanted some of that intermixed with the narrative description– and the most important part– that underlying subtext of inner thoughts would serve the scene, as it would be understood, yet not spelled out completely.

Summarization does have important uses:

  • To connect one part of a story to another
  • To report events whose details aren't important
  • To telescope time
  • To convey an emotional state over an extended period of time
  • To vary the rhythm and texture of the writing

BUT—

If your scene was written in summary narration, but not on purpose [to meet one of the above Summarization uses] then an exercise in re-writing may be helpful.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

If your scene was written by accident— not summarizing on purpose [to meet one of the Summarization uses] then an exercise in re-writing may be helpful.

Let’s say you have a Memoir you are writing. And this scene happened in real life so you’ve added it to your story. But, the scene does not [yet] serve any purpose for furthering the chapter or addressing the problem of the Memoir’s main character.

You might begin by putting any dialogue you’re thinking of writing into a list (even the dialogue not in quotes). You may have to truncate things from the original written lines to make it flow.

This, the bones of a scene, is what we the reader can experience with you if you use less of  this ‘telling us about movements’ [tame] and add subtext to it [underlying message in what is actually written out]. Let's try this with your work now. Either telescope a passage that has no purpose for showing detail. Or unpack a shorter passage and repalce Summary Narration with a wider scene.

Use Summary Narration for the better reason of telescoping time or info, but recognize when you are writing it on accident. Expand or contract your work as the story needs to be.