Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction says: Summary and Scene are methods of treating time in fiction. A summary covers a relatively long period of time in a relatively short compass; a scene deals at length with a relatively short period of time. Summary gives information, fills in background, lets us understand motive, alters pace, creates a transition, and leaps moments or years.
Robie Macauley, former Editor with Houghton-Mifflin, Fiction writer, author of Technique in Fiction, and founder of the Ploughshares International Writing Seminar, said: The traditional rule is that episodes meant to show important behavior in the characters, to make events dramatic as in theater, or to bring news that changes the situation should be dealt with in the scenic, or eyewitness manner. Stretches of time or occurrences that are secondary to the story’s development are handled by what is called a “narrative bridge.”
All good fiction needs a sense of time and space in order for the reader to make the associations necessary to understand the story, and that is where narrative summary comes into play. We should not be discouraging writers from writing summary. A clever writer is not afraid to use it because they understand its value to the overall foundation of the story. The tricky business has always been the where, the when, and the how to write narrative summary so that it comes across with just as much depth as a scene. Comes across with Impact. In order for Narrative summary to do that, it must have the same movement, emotional content, and descriptive characteristics that a scene has, give or take dialog. Narrative summary is where voice and style are of the utmost importance. H.P. Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors and one of the great writers of narrative summary, often blending it so seamlessly with the scenes that we never notice we are reading summary at all. Lovecraft is a master storyteller, and one of his particular quirks was that he rarely used dialog, even in scenes. His work is in the public domain, so I can quote freely here. In this excerpt from The Dunwich Horror, we can see how deftly he uses narrative summary to create mood, give us back story, and set the tempo for the scene to come:
Yet all this was only the prologue of the actual Dunwich horror. Formalities were gone through by bewildered officials, abnormal details were duly kept from press and public, and men were sent to Dunwich and Aylesbury to look up property and notify any who might be heirs of the late Wilbur Whateley. They found the countryside in great agitation, both because of the growing rumblings beneath the domed hills, and because of the unwonted stench and the surging, lapping sounds which came increasingly from the great empty shell formed by Whateley's boarded-up farmhouse. Earl Sawyer, who tended the horse and cattle during Wilbur's absence, had developed a woefully acute case of nerves. The officials devised excuses not to enter the noisome boarded place; and were glad to confine their survey of the deceased's living quarters, the newly mended sheds, to a single visit. They filed a ponderous report at the courthouse in Aylesbury, and litigations concerning heirship are said to be still in progress amongst the innumerable Whateleys, decayed and undecayed, of the upper Miskatonic valley.
An almost interminable manuscript in strange characters, written in a huge ledger and adjudged a sort of diary because of the spacing and the variations in ink and penmanship, presented a baffling puzzle to those who found it on the old bureau which served as its owner's desk. After a week of debate it was sent to Miskatonic University, together with the deceased's collection of strange books, for study and possible translation; but even the best linguists soon saw that it was not likely to be unriddled with ease. No trace of the ancient gold with which Wilbur and Old Whateley had always paid their debts has yet been discovered.
It was in the dark of September ninth that the horror broke loose.
What Lovecraft does in those few paragraphs is just brilliant. The sensory details leave us with a sense of foreboding, a bleak picture of the countryside and its people, and a lot of unanswered questions. Sure, he told us a lot of details, but what we are ultimately left with is a tense “want to know.” He has established intrigue by using the narrative summary to reinforce a very purposeful sense of ambiguity: Officials who just want to be done with the investigation. Details that were kept from the public. Ancient gold. Manuscripts with strange characters. A farmhouse with an unwonted stench and surging lapping sounds. Rumblings coming from the domed hills.
Sure he could have said it like this: Yet all this was only the prologue of the actual Dunwich horror. Formalities were gone through, details were duly kept from press and public, and men were sent to Dunwich and Aylesbury to look up property and notify any who might be heirs of the late Wilbur Whateley. They found that the townspeople were afraid of the Whateley's boarded-up farmhouse, so the officials filed a report at the courthouse in Aylesbury, and litigations concerning heirship are said to be still in progress amongst the innumerable Whateleys of the upper Miskatonic valley. No trace of the ancient gold with which Wilbur and Old Whateley had always paid their debts has yet been discovered.
Pretty flat and very boring. Here we are told everything we need to know, in essence, but what is missing is the emotive voice of the narrator and the descriptive content that makes well written summary compelling. The best written narrative summary can and does, often enough, feel like reading a scene: It has action, movement, dialog, and vivid character emotion without actually being a scene. The best written narrative summary has presence and authorial voice and style, which can be the author’s or the narrator’s. So a new author should not be discouraged to tell, nor should they be afraid to tell. It’s a technique that requires practice just like any other writing technique, and it’s in the telling that we find our voice. So the next time you hear that catch phrase about your own work, step back for a second and think about the real meaning behind Show and Tell before you strip one word from your manuscript, or heaven forbid, attempt to hide the summary in dialog. Just relax and ask yourself a few questions first:
- Is the narrative summary relevant to the story overall, to a character, to a theme, to the moment?
- If so, is it at the right place and the right time for it, and are you bridging the right amount of time and space?
- If it is and you are, does it have movement and emotive descriptive content? Does it have style, voice, and presence?
- If it does, does it give insight, or foreshadow later events, or does it create mood and/or a sense of intrigue?
- Lastly, if you are combining techniques, as in, if you are using the narrative summary like a flashback or to temper the pacing of your story, are you giving too much, too little, or just the right amount. For me, I like to use narrative summary for back story, specifically to subtly reveal character motivations. I don’t like my characters to tell their stories in dialog to other characters. To me, it makes them seem self-absorbed. People don’t give lengthy dissertations about themselves, so I tend to wrap the narrative summary in the guise of a flashback, which, like in film noir, alters or obscures the linear sequence of events, and I never tell you everything. But that’s just me. Because I write novellas, I have to be careful to make sure only the most important moments are written as scenes. Everything else is kept to summary due to length constraints.
Now, how you use narrative summary will also depend on the story you are writing and the genre you are working in. Some genres and stories lend themselves very well to a good deal of narrative summary and some don’t. Mainstream fiction tends to have a much faster pace, and readers want action. They want a scene based story, they want it to move quickly, and the language should be invisible to a great degree. Literary and experimental fiction seem better suited to narrative summary. Readers want ambiguity, they want language and style, they want a unique voice, and they tend to want a more leisurely read, one that gives them things to ponder: a story where some things are left off the page. Summary can be used in some wonderful and very exciting ways to stunning effect. I am currently reading The Gargoyle and the majority of the book is narrative summary, where one character is telling our protagonist of his prior lives. There is very little actual scene and very little dialog: actually, there is very little movement in real time in this story, and the protagonist is one of the most loathesome I have seen. But I'll review it later when I am finished.
So, you will never hear me tell an author to Show don’t Tell. The craft is all about learning how to balance the two in a manner appropriate for your story, and the art is all about making both as compelling as possible. The books I mentioned in the article are good places to start if you want to learn more about writing narrative summary along with Deepening Fiction and Words Overflown by Stars.
The Book Cover shown is from Show & Tell by Dilys Evans. The book deals with the art of illustrating children’s books, but the cover copy actually applies here as well: Show and Tell teaches the reader (the author) how to look for the perfect marriage of art and text.
Yup, that about says it all, doesn’t it.