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Showing and Telling: Writing Summary

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September 2011
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By Dave Hood

Jane Burroway in “Writing Fiction” writes that “summary can be called the mortar of the story, but scenes are the building blocks.” When writing a short story, the writer needs to use both scene and summary to craft the story.

In crafting scenes, the writer “shows” the reader what happens by including time and place details, dialogue, action, imagery. The writer crafts scenes to dramatize the story, helping to create a vivid and continuous dream inside the mind of the reader.

The writer also uses summary to” tell” the story. A summary is the material between scenes. It covers a long period of time by compressing time. The writer “tells” the reader what happens in the story. He/she doesn’t show the reader what is happening.

A summary is often a necessary device used by writers to do the following:

  • Provide background information
  • Description that doesn’t occur in a specific scene
  • Compress time
  • Provide character reflection, such as interior monologue or stream of consciousness
  • Provide narrative commentary

A well written summary can be as good as a scene. You  can use concrete and specific details and sensory details to create a memorable summary. The summary doesn’t include spoken dialogue, but you can tell the reader what was spoken.

You can also use metaphor, simile to create vivid summaries.

The summary is most often used to set up the scene, such as important events that happened in the past or character details that are useful for understanding the protagonist or secondary characters.

The summary can also be used to create tension before the scene.

You can  insert a summary into a scene, such as to share background information, to show a transformation in character through reflection, to provide background information to help the reader understand the character, to understand a transformation in the character, or to control the pace of the scene.

Summary can also be used to change the pace of the story. For instance, to cover a long span of time in which insignificant events occurred or repeating events, the writer often uses a summary, which tells the reader what happened.

A summary needs to be entertaining and enjoyable to read. That is why you must use sensory details and concrete and specific details, and figurative language.

It is possible to write a short story without summary narrative. But this is not common.

You can use a summary to set up the conflict or confrontation—some important event in the plot structure or three act structure.

You should move seamlessly between scene and summary when writing the story. Short bits of summary can often be added in a scene or used to set up a scene.

Many beginning writers summarize too much of the story, telling the reader too many events and compressing too much time. So the story results in a lack of depth. Many beginning writers don’t summarize enough of the story, creating scenes of insignificant events.

You should not use summary to tell the reader about an important conflict, confrontation, turning point. Instead you need to craft a scene. The scene is used to dramatize the story, create a believable story, and show how the story unfolds. Showing through scene is dramatizing the story.

You should not write general and abstract summary narratives. The summary needs to provide the reader with concrete and specific details.

The task of the writer is to balance scene and summary. The writer uses scene to dramatize important events, such as the inciting incident, conflict, setbacks, obstacles, climax of the story.

The write creates a scene by showing the reader what happened. The writer writes a summary by telling the reader what happened, such as a narrative summary or to setup a scene or to provide background information to the story.

For more information on how to write scene and summaries, read the following:

  • Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
  • Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts

1 Comment

  1. Dwayne says:

    Great stuff Dave.

    I wish we could spend a month or two, as a group, sifting through great writers like Tolstoy, Gabriel García Marquéz, D.H. Lawrence, Turgenev, Cervantes, Toni Morrison, McEwen, you name it, and really analyze how they mastered VIVID telling, or vivid summary. You will notice that the novels crafted by many of these authors have a weightiness and a heft to them all because they knew how to manipulate narrative summary.

    And you are so right in your post when you write that summary, when written well, indeed, can be memorable and unforgettable and can set up tension wonderfully. I have Laurie Alberts book, it is a lifesaver, especially the section about “time markers” to indicate that your are compressing time.

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