4 Ways to Deal with Narrative Summaries

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Scenes and Narrative Summary

While I’m working on ideas for a new novel, I’m also spending a couple hours a day revising an old one. For this revision, my goal is to make sure each scene is working. Some of the feedback I’ve gotten is that there’s still a bit too much Telling-instead-of-Showing. Sigh.

I agree. After reading the first 50 pages, I’ve found a couple muddy scenes and a couple long passages of narrative summary. So, what is narrative summary and when is it okay to use it? That’s what I’m struggling with this week.

Choosing the Right Scenes

PigsNarrative summary. It is impossible to Show-don’t-Tell everything that happens in a story, it’s a matter of choosing where to zoom in. For example, the story of the 3 Little Pigs might include these scenes:

  • Mom and Dad meeting
  • Mom and Dad having that special moment
  • Mom finding out she’s expecting
  • The Delivery
  • Multiple scenes from raising those Darling Pigs
  • Decision Time: Should they send out DPs into the world or not?
  • Telling the Pigs it’s time to grow up and leave home
  • Pigs resisting change/excited about change
  • Pigs walking out the front door
  • Pigs scared of the Big Wide World
  • Pigs meeting a Straw Peddlar
  • and so on

What scenes do we choose to tell in detail and why those scenes?
The rest of it, we summarize or omit. Most tales of the 3 Little Pigs starts with the parents explaining that it’s time to move on. But you could back up and tell more. You could Show-Don’t-Tell those pigs in a fascinating scene in the kitchen right before Dad announces their adulthood. It could be a scene of characterization, Showing the relationship among the brothers, their attitudes toward Mom and Dad and the BWWorld and the Big Bad Wolf. It would be a great scene, setting up the action to come and foreshadowing their reactions.

But do we need it? Probably not. Certainly, the folk/fairy tale genre leaves it out because it mostly cares about roles in life, not full characterization.

Narrative summary: In The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield defines narrative summary like this:

“. . . that part of a story in which the author tells the reader what happened in a compressed form. Such a passage may summarize a day, a week, a season, a year, or whatever. Narrative summary is especially common in novels, when the author wants to cover a great deal of time economically. . .”

4 Ways to Deal with Narrative Summary

My story is a quest, with the characters embarking on a journey. I sure don’t want to cover the daily tedium of traveling, so I’ve used narrative summary. Appropriate. But too long. I have a couple options.

  1. Omit or Edit Narrative Summaries. I’ll be looking to cut the narrative summaries from a page and a half to a mere half-page or less. What is the most important parts to convey and how can I do that economically?
  2. Scene Cuts. http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/scene-11-scene-cuts/ I hope to find a couple places when I can just plain skip the summary and go straight to a new scene. It will mean some tricky transitions, but it should tighten the story and get rid of those clunky narrative summaries.
  3. Dramatic Narration–Punch Up the Narrative Summary. They aren’t all bad, you know. I expect to keep some of the summaries nearly intact. After all, I need the reader the FEEL as if they, too, are on a long journey. Too many rapid scene cuts will make the story choppy and make it feel shorter. It will be a balancing act. However, when I do keep them, I’ll try to infuse the summary with a bit more drama, adding a scrap of dialogue, a touch of description. It will still be a compressed summary, but it will feel more active; I’ll still need to work to get to the next scene quickly. But it will serve the purpose of bridging two scenes in an exciting way.
  4. Expand to a Full Scene. As I work through this revision, I may find a single sentence that really should be a full scene. There will need to be a compelling reason to expand it fully, but there will be multiple opportunities for this. For example, when the 3 Little Pigs meet the Straw Peddlar, it could be a full scene, taking up several pages, instead of the short scene we usually get.

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1 Comment
  • Patti Mallett
    March 7, 2011

    Thanks, Darcy, for the great post! It’s just what I needed to read today. Getting the right balance, saying enough without saying too much, that’s tricky. I struggle with that. The way you’ve explained the challenge is very helpful!