Using Summary to Add Depth to Your Stories

Telling isn’t always wrong

One of the first things I was taught in creative writing was “show; don’t tell.” I took that to mean that I needed to write about actions and dialogue, and avoid descriptions except for a sentence or two to establish setting. If I wrote about a character’s past or imagined future in a way that did not detail the moment-by-moment experience, I was committing the deadly sin of “telling”.

Imagine my surprise when a fellow writer suggested that descriptions are not only okay, but a valuable tool for telling stories, and they can be used for a lot more than just establishing setting.

It turns out that “showing”, or writing in scenes, is not the only way to build a story. I think I can be excused for harboring this misconception because a lot of North American literary writing in the last two decades has focused more on action and dialogue. Plenty of outstanding stories have been built entirely of scenes, but that is not the only way.

Rich chunks of condensed story

Condensed chunks of description can convey the inner workings of a rattled mind. They can uncover the bias of an unreliable narrator. They can show the past encroaching on the present. They can add a secret underlayer or shading to the story. It can be a delicious experience as a reader to feel that you know things some of the characters don’t.

These chunks of description are called summaries. They can be interspersed within scenes or used to connect scenes. When used well, summaries bring scenes into sharper relief.

Alice Munro using summary

Writing a summary is harder than writing a scene. A good chunk of summary is brief and vivid. Often, a summary compresses time and takes us forward at breakneck speed.

In “To Reach Japan” in Alice Munro’s collection called “Dear Life”, there is an excellent example of a summary within the first few paragraphs:

When Peter was a baby, his mother carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Czechoslovakia into Western Europe. There were other people of course. Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure. He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.  (from “To Reach Japan” by Alice Munro)

In sixty-nine words, we learn what could have filled a novel. The summary relies on sensory detail. We envision Peter’s mother carrying him across mountains. Multiple ideas are squeezed into each sentence. Each word carries significant weight. Think of the richness of meaning in the single word “secret”. Yet, much of the impact comes from what is left out. We feel the sadness of the sanatorium and the death. It leaves us wondering what that was really like and that is the power of summary. As a reader, we must fill in the story for ourselves and this makes it more memorable.

This takes bravery on the part of the writer. We must trust in the essential collaborative arrangement of fiction. Half of it is in the hands of the reader. I think readers appreciate it when we leave some of the job to them. It makes them feel smart and rightly so. Plus, it makes the story more compelling.

Mental excursions

Raymond Carver also makes strong use of summary in his stories. He often uses summary to show what characters avoid. As the reader, we bear witness to the mental hijacking of people as they side-step what they don’t want to deal with. They do that by going on a brief excursion in their mind to something less difficult. In Raymond Carver’s work, that something is often someone else and their problems. Now isn’t that a common mental trick? We’ve all done that at least once. These mental excursions can be written as a summary.

Adding the shading

In the first draft of a story, we are happy to catch the overall shape. It is often too early to worry about shading. I find that shading is for subsequent drafts. One of the things I like to do is see if something I’ve written as a whole scene might be more effective as a summary. It’s fun moving it around to see where it could fit.

Other times a summary seems almost to write itself. I’ll be rewriting a scene and think a bit from somewhere else would fit so well right there in the middle of the scene so I stick it in. Each time I do, it makes me happy. I’ve always secretly enjoyed breaking rules. Besides, isn’t it time to break that silly “no telling” rule?

I can’t say what it’s like for others, but now that I feel I have permission to do a bit of high-intensity “telling” now and then, my stories drop deeper and writing them is more fun.

What has been your experience? Do you use summaries in your stories? What do they add?

By Debbie Bateman

I'm an innovative thinker with a practical nature and a passion for explaining complex ideas simply. This makes me a dedicated and meticulous instructional designer, curriculum writer, and plain language editor. As a bonus, I am a storyteller, fiction writer, and novel editor.

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