How “Interesting” is your Narrative Summary?

by Bill

NEW FICTION WRITERS ARE “NATURALS” at dialogue and first-person narration. Then comes the first paragraph of pure narrative summary–and their story’s interest level plummets. Why?

It’s one of the many paradoxes for new novelists: you’d think narrative summary was a skill they’d been using for years, and so it is–but they’ve used it almost exclusively in academic papers, reports, case histories, etc. Though it may seem to be the same skill, narrative summary in fiction is a different animal altogether.

Check out these two examples I’ve written:

“A small woman came in the room to introduce a lawyer who boringly told the attendees to make sure their affairs were in order”

Now the same sentence, strengthened by an infusion of the life blood of fiction, specifics:

“A snowy haired little woman hobbled into the meeting room trailed by today’s speaker, a lawyer–brand new from the look of her–whose voice quivered as she warned the sea of impassive gray faces to be sure their wills were current.”

What did I do, other than add to its word length? Two things mostly:

• I used description–just a touch–for the reader to flesh out the picture. The “elderly person” is now a woman, small, white-haired, and somewhat gimpy. The occasion is a meeting. The lawyer is female, young, and nervous, She’s there to be “today’s speaker.” Her listeners are old, and “impassive,” most likely a tough audience.

• I used verbs that contain precise, specific images of the action they render: “hobbled”…”quivered.” No adverbs necessarily.

• I used phrases that deliver attitude and meaning as well as describe objective images and actions: “brand new from the look of her.”

• I revealed everything I could, as clearly as I could. Notice how the first version–like all over-generalized narrative–does almost the opposite. Rather than reveal, it obscures by hiding the scene behind a screen of words that identify only broad classifications, not vivid particulars, and leaving the reader with more questions than answers.

“An elderly person” (Man or woman?It’s impossible to tell.)

“came into” (Came how? On foot, on wheels? dancing, staggering? None of the above? Who knows, the wording tells the reader nothing.)

“boringly” (How so? Droning monotone? Overly florid rhetorical stye? Sign language? Who knows–it come be any of these or none.)

“told the attendees” (Told how? And what the heck does an “attendee” look like?) And so on.

In nonfiction, summaries can bolster an argument or give weight to whatever position the writer has taken on an issue. Obviously, “objective,” highly generalized accounts will be preferred; and Intimate views of personalized experience are not what’s preferred.

And yet, it’s the second approach that, in fiction, is not only preferred, but demanded.

Good narrative summary is rich with specific images and attitudes that suggest the kind of behavior and action that a reader can “see.” And THAT is what “show don’t tell” is really all about.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Piper September 2, 2011 at 2:52 am

I like your post. Clearly stated. Well done.

James Piper
Twitter: @ByJamesPiper

2 Bo BreitReed September 9, 2011 at 8:03 pm


Thanks for the post. I’m working on some writing exercises right now that deal with narrative summary, which has brought me to this question about your post: would you consider your enhanced version of the narrative summary to overstep the boundary of narrative summary? It seems to use just as much detail and description as regular prose would in the description of a focused event (not a summarized event). Do you kind of see what I’m getting at, as vague as this question is?

3 Bill Henderson September 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm

I see what you’re getting at, Bo, but the answer is, it’s still summary. That is, it still TELLS the reader that the lawyer entered and warned everyone to be sure their wills were current. It still summarizes that action. Otherwise I would have written it as a scene, made it real-time, largely by giving her the speech in dialogue. Summary lacks the real-time element. In fact, that’s its major usefulness, to compress real time for story-telling purposes. Enhanced (specified, visualized, characterized) detail makes it better summary for purposes of fiction, where the ultimate aim is to bring characters and events to life for the reader.

4 L.S. Perricone March 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Thanks for the nuanced explanation. This will help my students better understand that narrative summary should still be specific and descriptive.

5 R. W. Wells February 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I am in a short story writing class in college. I hate to get nit picky but what you wrote is a scene not narrative summary. Narrative summary refers to actions or sayings that the character does on multiple occasions not just one. Changing the tense of it does not make it narrative summary.

6 Bill Henderson February 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm

R.W. check your definitions of scene and summary. The examples I wrote summarize an event, a meeting with a lawyer that might have lasted a half hour, maybe less, maybe more. There’s no dialogue, no questions from the audience, no laughs or yawns or other description of listener attitudes, no specific behavior, etc. If it suited the story, I could have rendered the meeting in real time, with full dialogue and action. That would be a scene–probably several pages long.

I don’t know where you got the notion that it’s only narrative summary if it references multiple events separated by time and place. That’s certainly a common (and very good) use for summary, but let’s say you and I have a single conversation lasting less than five minutes. A writer might choose to summarize it in a sentence or two. “They met at Starbuck’s and talked for five minutes.” Is that a scene? No, it only summarizes a scene. Is it narrative? Sure. Hence…”narrative summary.”

As for “changing the tense”…there is no change of tense; both examples are past-tense, so I don’t get what you mean there.

7 Software for Novel Writers April 22, 2013 at 7:13 am

Nice post, with lots of good points.

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