Show and Tell — Part III When to Use Narrative Summary

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers By Renni Browne & Dave King

Second Edition

In referring to this resource on Show v. Tell, today, we’ll be looking at times when narrative summary (telling) can actually enhance the scenes that advance the story along (showing). Click to Tweet #selfediting #amwriting #showvtell

Work in Extra Time

On page 13, the authors discuss that instead of giving us only five minutes’ worth of dialogue in each scene, thereby writing the novel in five-minute chunks, they recommended he use a few paragraphs of narrative summary. Here’s how they put it.

“Reading it was like jogging on railroad ties. He could have run some of his scenes together into longer ones, and of course (and we suggested he do so), but the real solution was to use narrative summary to work some extra time into his scenes.”

In the author’s next draft, “he showed two characters meeting for dinner, summarized the dinner itself in a paragraph or two of narration, and then showed the five minutes of after-dinner conversation that were really crucial to the story. By simply adding a few paragraphs of narration, he stretched the duration of some of his scenes out to two to three hours’ worth of dialogue and action. As a result, his book had a more expansive feel, and his readers had a chance to breathe.” Pg. 13

In “Meghan’s Choice,” I used both scenes and narrative summary to pass the time. My mentor-editor, Sandra Byrd, suggested I start every scene with how much time had passed since the last one. That way the readers aren’t lost.

Continuity to Your Story

The writer of a historical novel wrote that her main character moved to Spain during the time of the Inquisition. “At first she was terrified of falling under the power of the inquisitors, but she slowly came to love the people of her new village so much that by the end of the novel, she stood up to the inquisitors in order to stay.” Pg. 13 They go on to say that the author wrote a bunch of short scenes to show the character’s growing love and affection for her new home.

“But these short scenes lacked flow, which is especially critical at the beginning of the story. Instead, we suggested that the writer cut some of the shorter scenes and narrate the time that passed between the longer ones. Because the narrative summary was able to capture weeks or months of slow, steady growth, readers got a smooth sense of the development of the main character’s feelings…” Pg. 14

Meghans ChoiceRepetitive Action

“Narrative summary can also be useful when you have a lot of repetitive action. Here’s how I did it in “Meghan’s Choice.” Meghan finally starts school on May 1st, 1871. It’s a one-month term, because she didn’t arrive in New Boston until late March, then she was shot, and had to recuperate, and needed time to meet with her students and their folks ahead of time.

I did have a scene on May 1st, but to have had scenes for all the school days of that short term, would have been boring, so I did a paragraph or two of narrative summary, and showed a short scene of a field trip.

Meghan enjoyed her routine the month of May. Monday through Friday, she taught the children, and they were a joy. After the first day, the mothers came at the end of each day to pick up their children and ask how the day went, sometimes offering suggestions. Meghan realized that Elizabeth Fagin and Caroline Baker were wonderful to deal with—and they had good ideas…

On their various field trips outside, they talked about worms, crickets, and some of the different life cycles of flowers. Liddie Sampson was in her element with insects.

“Miss Gallagher! Come and see this!” Liddie held up a small worm about three inches long. “What kind of worm is this?”

Meghan squinted in the sunlight, but did not take the worm from Liddie’s confident fingers. “It looks like an earthworm, Liddie.”

I didn’t show you the whole scene, just the beginning of the narration, and how it segued into a short scene.

Summing up: “…narration has a place in good fiction. Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.” Pg. 15 Click to Tweet #amwriting #showvtell #selfediting

What about you? What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

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