Mark Twain once observed, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Writers would be well advised to understand that narrative and narrative summary present a similar problem.
The rules for modern narrative have been around since the 18th century. Clara Reeve, in The Progress of Romance through Times, Countries and Manners written in 1785, might have been the first to state them. And she wasn’t talking about Harlequin bodice rippers when she wrote:
[Narrative] is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written…[It] gives a familiar relation of such things as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to a friend, or to ourselves; and perfection of it is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.
While story telling styles today are quite different than they were in Reeve’s day, the basic rules she described haven’t changed much in 228 years.
In a good narrative, stories are told by creating scenes. In scenes readers experience events as they happen rather than being told about them. There’s action occurring at a specific time in a specific place. A scene gives a story a sense of immediacy. Writing teachers have captured the way to do it in the oft heard chestnut, Show don’t tell.
When a writer uses narrative summary he’s telling the story rather than letting the story unfold through the actions of his characters. The reader’s experience of what happens is no longer direct. It becomes secondhand through the eyes of the author.
Let’s take a look at how that works. Fables are mostly narrative summary. Aesop’s The Fox and the Cat is a good example:
A Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies.
"I have a whole bag of tricks," he said, "which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies."
"I have only one," said the Cat; "but I can generally manage with that."
Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs.
"This is my plan," said the Cat. "What are you going to do?"
The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said: “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”
This works for Aesop because the goal is not to engage the reader in the narrative but to teach a moral lesson. But there’s a reason that fables are mostly considered children’s stories today. Using narrative summary to tell a story doesn’t interest the reader for very long.
Narrative summary can be used effectively in telling a story. It can provide brief transitions like:
Detective Smith used the time before he had to be at the morgue for the autopsy to clean up some of the pile of paperwork on his desk.
It can be used to provide a snapshot of a longer period of time like:
Marcia hoped to see the mysterious stranger again. For a week she visited spots in the neighborhood where she hoped he might show up. She went back to the library, where they had literally bumped into each other reaching for the new Kate Atkinson novel - twice. She made two visits to the nearby Starbucks, and sipped chardonnay three times during happy hour at Carlo’s, a fern bar she didn’t even like. But she never saw him. Maybe he wasn’t from the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, writers sometimes employ narrative summary to deal with their character’s back story. These passages are info dumps providing details of the protagonist’s life up to the moment, explaining the dilemma a character faces at the moment or discussing the reason something isn’t acceptable in a particular community. When they employ narrative summary authors need to understand the story’s action and forward momentum stop for the duration of the summary. And when the action stops reader interest wanes quickly.
Rennie Browne and David King, in their excellent book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, warn, “…anything that can go into a scene can also be summarized. And since scenes are usually harder to write than summaries, most authors rely too heavily on narrative summary to tell their stories. The result is often page after page, sometimes chapter after chapter, of writing that reads … clearly perhaps, even stylishly, but with no specific setting, no specific characters, no dialogue.”
One of the first things to do in revising a manuscript is to find places where you have used narrative summary. Look at ways you might convey the same information through a scene, or if a scene isn’t warranted whether you might simply be better off cutting. Narrative summary should be employed only in small doses. Used judiciously it can be a very effective tool. Overused it can be deadly.
If your goal is to capture the drama in your story make sure to rely on lightning and not just a lightning bug.