Narrative summary is one mode of story-telling and narrative writing. Performers will recognize this tool as the voice of a narrator, different in that it doesn’t belong to any particular character in the story, it allows them to tell what has happened in the past or add context to a current situation, and provides a tool to transition between one immediate scene to another by covering the time between the events more quickly.
As a writing tool, it operates much the same way. Narrative summary often acts as a balance for scene. A summary can cover longer stretches of time, directly share essential but less dramatic plot points, and add color with sentences spent sharing detail and description.
One way to consider the particular strengths of this tool is to recognize its visual representation in film adaptations of books. Consider the classic book, Frankenstein, and the 1994 film version of the story. The descriptions in the book, largely handsome gothic prose with distinct interest in nature’s beauty and bold strokes of sensory detail, take a couple of pages of densely packed paragraphs to describe the landscape of Geneva, Switzerland.
Where a film can manage to convey this picture with a single, panning shot (albeit carefully done by a skilled movie maker), so much is available in the written summary to help identify the story’s themes, elements, and tone. The attribution of “Gothic style”, actually, comes mainly from the application of intricate and sensual detail in these types of summary passages, essential to a story that requires immersion to achieve a classic horror effect. (Admittedly, gothic horror is a subgenre of gothic fiction. Still, it’s largely dominant and the elements apply well to horror stories.)
Use of narrative summary, as of any storytelling tool, comes in and out of fashion with the reading public. Stories written, told, performed, or filmed are a product for entertainment, and are subject to the shifting tastes of their audience. Trends of the past few decades have shifted the audience (American audiences at the very least) toward faster-paced and more immediate modes. Scene has taken the role of most popular storytelling mode, as it is immediate, emotionally engaging, and full of dramatic motion between characters.
Fashion, however, continues to shift, so a tool as versatile as narrative summary should not be simply dismissed. The following are exercises for honing skill with this flexible storytelling tool.
Invisibility – transitions
- Rewrite a long passage of narrative summary into invisibility. Take the Frankenstein example. Select a passage where time is passing or where description makes up the majority of the 2-3 paragraph section and dissolve it down to only the plot-necessary elements. It helps, in this exercise, to be familiar with the whole story. Identifying the essentials becomes less the issue and you can focus on making those points flow quickly and smoothly. Remember, invisibility does not always mean short. What it does mean is “not distracting”. Try moving as quickly as possible to the next scene material, condense detail with stronger (or simpler) word choice, or experiment and find another technique to make the summary less visible.
- Turn an invisible transition into a highly visible one. For this exercise, find a portion of narrative summary only a few lines long. You might have to look hard for patterns on the page to identify these, as editors try to make them difficult to spot (often using the same methods stated above). Once you’ve found one, make it command attention. You can do this by increasing its length, tuning details (or adding new material) to add depth, increasing sensory words and descriptions, etc. Don’t let it hide away like it did before, but don’t just make it a hulking brute on the page. Even in practice writing, do your best.
- In an existing story (or an episode from history) write a length of 10 years or more in a paragraph of narrative summary. This is an old favorite in writing classes. You can do more than the single paragraph, but anything more than 3 paragraphs looks a little too much like cheating. This isn’t meant to be a short story or an essay, just a time-lapse summary. One great way to wrangle this challenge is to have a focal point (or two, but not too many) like a character, setting, or tone to help focus the use of detail.
- Summarize your school years in a paragraph. Again, this is made easier with a focal point. Most people will choose themselves for this one. It’s a bit easier for some people than picking a point in history or a place in the story they’re working on. It’s also a little bit harder in the sense it’s one paragraph. For this one, the time span is less important than the critical points you choose to highlight. There’s room for only a few, so the bits you use will immediately convey a particular tone about the memories.
- Pay attention to (and play with) elements that show time passing. If so inclined, spend some time experimenting with the use of time-oriented details. Here are a few: seasonal weather, plants/growth, aging, holidays/traditions, people in power, decay, popular trends, technology, construction/demolition, deaths/births, etc. Basically, anything predictably cyclical or anything with finality to it. Nothing says, “This city has changed,” like an old resident pointing to a gas station and telling you what used to be there.
Memorability – art
- Narrative summary, unlike straight passages of dialogue or immediate action, provides a unique opportunity to flex artistic muscle. Go back in a project and locate a summary that is particularly essential (narrated backstory, or an epiphany of a character), and introduce specific details to make it appealing, beautiful, and memorable. Those “some time ago” and “something bad happened” phrases? Show them in powerful brief. “Some time ago” becomes “two years back in the Spring when apricot blossoms were new”. “Something bad happened” becomes “Perfect Billy Malone kissed that mousey Tilly Strome”. Whatever details come up should provide context for characters or events in the story to come. In summaries, showing (not telling) is more about contextualizing the scenes to come than it is just about interest. Though powerful, applicable detail is memorable on its own. After that, you can play with rhythm, word choice, flow, repetition and all those other lovely tools.