Art by Carl Mueller, 1940
In my head, it’s clear that, in fiction, dramatic events need to be shown in scene. A single point-of-view character wants something and strives against obstacles to get it—all shown in the real-time of the story.
And mundane events need to be omitted or presented in well-crafted narrative summary. That’s The Rule. And when writers follow The Rule, their stories zip along with verve. But The Rule leaves me floundering.
How do we consistently produce well-crafted narrative summary?
How is narrative summary used?
How is it different from scene?
A scene plays out in continuous time in a single location, usually with one main action. But a passage of narrative summary can condense time and span a few or many times and places.
In scene, we show. In narrative summary we tell. But whether it’s a scene or narrative summary, the savvy author doesn’t include anything that doesn’t move the story forward. If a detail is included, it does one or more of the following:
- Characterizes a story person
- Describes a pertinent aspect of setting
- Sets up a future event
- Pays off a previous setup
- Reveals motivation and relationships among characters and places
Ideally, every item does two or three of these tasks. The challenge is to see how well you do it in the fewest words. In narrative summary the narrator reveals himself, other characters, the setting, the situation, the backstory, the conflict, different attitudes toward the situation and may even guess about what’s going to happen next.
But what about “show, don’t tell?”
“Show, don’t tell” is an important guideline for writing scenes. Showing the character in action involves your readers and gives them a great dramatic experience. But for narrative summary, the better guideline is: “tell with attitude.”
How does “tell with attitude” work?
My favorite narrative summary is told from the character’s point of view, up close. It can be in third person or first. The way this character experiences the time and the place and the people colors the entire summary. When characters are well developed and have strong personalities and plenty of opinions–there’s no chance for the passage to be boring.
I love the narrative summary in Rex Stout’s mystery series, which features Nero Wolfe—a famous, eccentric private detective and Archie Goodwin his confidential assistant.
Archie is the first-person point-of-view character. He makes the summary interesting even though it’s mainly about mundane events. He tells how the day differs from what was expected or what was desired or what other people thought was going to happen.
Sometimes he relates the goings-on to Nero Wolfe’s quirks or how much Archie disagrees with Wolfe’s decision, which introduces conflict before the story proper even begins.
By means of narrative summary, Stout gives us a sense of history—like Archie and Wolfe have been there for years arguing about picayune stuff just like this.
Here’s a bit of narrative summary from Bitter End by Rex Stout. Archie has just entered an old factory and is looking for the boss.
It sure was a ramshackle joint. From a dingy hall a dilapidated stair went up. I mounted to the floor above, heard noises, including machinery humming, off somewhere, and through a rickety door penetrated a partition and was in an anteroom. From behind a grilled somebody’s grandpa peered out at me, and by shouting I managed to convey to him that I wanted to see Mr. Arthur Tingley.
After a wait I was told that Mr. Tingley was busy, and would be indefinitely. On a leaf of my notebook I wrote, “Quinine urgent,” and sent it in. That did it.
After another wait a cross-eyed young man came and guided me through a labyrinth of partitions and down a hall into a room.
Seated at an old, battered roll-top desk was a man talking into a phone, and in a chair facing him was a woman older than him with the physique and facial equipment of a top sergeant. Since the phone conversation was none of my business, I stood and listened to it, and gathered that someone named Philip had better put in an appearance by five o’clock or else.
Meanwhile I surveyed the room, which had apparently been thrown in by the Indians when they sold the island. By the door, partly concealed by a screen, was an old, veteran marble-topped washstand. A massive, old-fashioned safe was against the wall across from Tingley’s desk.
Wooden cupboards and shelves loaded down with the accumulation of centuries, occupied most of the remaining wall space.
“Who the hell are you?”
In the passage above, the next scene begins with that last line: “Who the hell are you?”
Up until then, Archie scopes out the whole building for us and conveys some important information, though the reader probably doesn’t realize it at the time. When reading, it feels like Archie is being Archie—and I’m just going along and soaking up his attitudes. Let’s take a closer look.
- It sure was a ramshackle joint. From a dingy hall a dilapidated stair went up. I mounted to the floor above, heard noises, including machinery humming, off somewhere, and through a rickety door penetrated a partition and was in an anteroom.—Shows Archie traveling up the stairs, and lets us feel as if we’re there. The sense of motion is clear: up, off somewhere, through.
- Then when Archie makes it into the inner office, Stout uses the word “penetrated,” which conveys Archie’s attitude of having conquered the ancient building. Then Archie shouts to an old man, but Stout does narrative summary with gusto and writes: “by shouting I managed to convey…” He used six words to say “shouted.” And this is not a novel. It’s a long short story. Stout cared about the connotation, the feel of the words he used. “Managed to convey” smacks of effort and struggle. And we’re right there with Archie trying to get through to the old codger behind the grille.
- Stout also uses the narrative summary to condense time. This is about a page of text, but it covers several spans of time interrupted by Archie having to wait.
- First there’s the detailed trip through the building which takes up time,
- Then, “After a wait I was told” —this is three delays. Once he’s waiting for the old guy to acknowledge him, and then he waits for the reply, and then: “After a wait I was told that Mr. Tingley was busy, and would be indefinitely.” Stout is a master at inserting tension and conflict in the narrative summary.
- Then there’s “After another wait” someone leads Archie into the office where he wants to be, only to find his target is on the phone. Even this mundane news is delivered enriched with Archie’s personality: “Since the phone conversation was none of my business, I stood and listened to it, and gathered that someone named Philip had better put in an appearance by five o’clock or else.” Told this way, it’s clear Archie had to wait since he heard a whole conversation.
- As soon as the old man addresses Archie (“What the hell do you want?”) Archie’s goal is met. The narrative summary has done its job, and the new scene is underway.
- All these points also set up important events that take place later, and they figure in solving the crime. It feels like Archie is just cruising through the building, but everything he sees, says, and does turns out to be important to solving the mystery.
- Using narrative summary, Stout is able to keep up the pace of the story and still do all the grunt work of revealing the key setting—the factory and Mr. Tingley’s office. He also shows us three of the main players: Mr. Tingley, Philip, and a woman who looks like she could be a top sergeant. Did it annoy you when Archie noted the washstand and the room-partitioning screen? And the wall of cupboards? Everything he mentioned except the cupboards comes into play in the murder. The cupboards are mentioned to round out the description and make it casual. Even the phone Mr. Tingley is talking on becomes important later. [A careful author will place a phone in the room chapters before he needs it.] We could check how the narrative summary affects the pace of the novel by rewriting the whole passage in scene. Remember a scene is shown in continuous time in a single place. So we’d need to change scenes every time Archie went to a new spot in the factory.The scene needs a goal, conflict and a resolution. It could take five pages to get Archie through the building and in to see Mr. Tingley.
- Stout has Archie paraphrase conversations, and that makes what is normally a bore quick, painless, and often clever. E.g. I was told that Mr. Tingley was busy, and would be indefinitely.
Where is narrative summary used?
Narrative summary can be the bridge from one dramatic event to the other. Consider this scenario: I’ve finished my scene, which ended in a disaster [a term from writing-guru Jack Bickham that means the hero did not get what he wanted in that scene], and I’ve played out my sequel [how the character felt and thought about the disaster].
The character decided to do something, and some prep is needed. And some other people are involved. And the next goal/conflict pair happens three days later.
That’s how I tell where I need narrative summary.
Now I need to span the three days until I’m ready to show the new goal-meets-conflict. Even if the new goal was revealed at the end of the sequel, nothing scene-worthy happens until that goal bangs up against a conflict.
If I show my hero waking, eating his Cheerios and cleaning his fingernails, my poor readers will abandon me before the next scene starts. Readers don’t usually need to see people introducing each other or traveling from one place to another. The new scene goal is shown again at the beginning of the new scene.
So the guideline is: use narrative summary to convey enough story to get to the next showable goal-meets-conflict. And this is where using narrative summary in transitions comes in.
No matter how much time has passed since the end of the last scene, there’s a way to smoothly connect the chapters. The key is: whatever the point of view character’s feeling is at the end of the chapter, replay it for the reader at the start of the new chapter. You may only need a single line of narrative summary to make the transition, or you may want to set up a scene and introduce people and issues as we saw in the Bitter End example.
Here’s my made-up example to demonstrate transitioning with feelings:
Scene A—blah, blah… Lucas ducked. The first shot hit the wall above his head. Another shot. His mother screamed and collapsed at his feet.
“Run,” she whispered. “Your uncle did this—”
Lucas felt like a horse had kicked him in the sternum. She was gone. He had to run. He couldn’t let them catch him now, because he didn’t care about anything but finding Uncle Moshe and making him pay.
[insert white space]
Three days later when Lucas got off the plane in Colorado, he was still filled with rage. All he wanted to do was find Moshe.
Even though this is cheesy writing, it does exemplify tying two scenes together with narrative summary and emotion. Copy the technique, and write better than I did.
In The League of Frightened Men, Rex Stout opens the novel with a passage of narrative summary. The voice we hear is again the first-person point of view character Archie Goodwin. [Farrar & Rinehart, 1935.]
Wolfe and I sat in the office Friday afternoon. As it turned out, the name of Paul Chapin, and his slick and thrifty notions about getting vengeance at wholesale without paying for it, would have come to our notice pretty soon in any event; but that Friday afternoon the combination of an early November rain and a lack of profitable business that had lasted so long it was beginning to be painful, brought us an opening scene— a prologue, not a part of the main action—of the show that was about ready to begin.
Wolfe was drinking beer and looking at pictures of snowflakes in a book someone had sent him from Czechoslovakia. I was reading the morning paper, off and on. I had read it at breakfast, and glanced through it again for half an hour …
Let’s analyze what Stout did here.
- Wolfe and I sat in the office Friday afternoon. Stout showed who did what mundane thing where, when.
- As it turned out Cuts to the end of the story and hints that something happened in between.
- the name of Paul Chapin, and his slick and thrifty notions about getting vengeance at wholesale without paying for it, Introduces the antagonist and a tiny bit of Archie’s attitude toward him: “slick. “
- but that Friday afternoon the combination of an early November rain and a lack of profitable business that had lasted so long it was beginning to be painful, Provides backstory and mood. Identifies the season, month, weather, and state of the household finances.
- brought us an opening scene—a prologue, not a part of the main action—of the show that was about ready to begin. Provides another teaser that a story is about to begin, similar to item number 2 above.
- Wolfe was drinking beer and looking at pictures of snowflakes in a book someone had sent him from Czechoslovakia. Tells specific action Wolfe takes and includes specific details that characterize Wolfe. [He is from Montenegro, which at this point in history was part of Czechoslovakia.] Later in the passage, Goodwin reveals his attitude toward Wolfe’s sedentary, but intense reading habits, shining light on their relationship.
- I was reading the morning paper, off and on. I had read it at breakfast and glanced through it again for half an hour … Here, Goodwin skips from the present moment, back to breakfast, touches a span of time later in the day, now showing a description of his earlier comment: a lack of profitable business that had lasted so long it was beginning to be painful,
That’s a lot to accomplish in one paragraph. As an alternative to a “hook” opening, I like this. I’m willing to hang around for half a page and see what the story’s about.
In your work-in-progress, look for passages where your characters are doing mundane things like cooking, eating, making introductions, travelling, just talking. Experiment with rewriting in narrative summary. Collapse the time. Paraphrase non-dramatic dialog. See if you can get to the interesting parts more quickly. I’d love to see your examples.