“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain
Substitute narrative and narrative summary for lightning and lightning bug and you have a sound piece of advice for writers. Learning the difference between the two, and when to employ one and not the other is a critical step in becoming a good storyteller.
Over reliance on narrative summary is one of the surest signs that a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, is written by a novice writer. The author, often because he is concerned with making all of his plot points, sounds like a school child giving a book report. This happened, then that happened, next another thing happened, the writer tells his reader. There is not much detail in his account of the story. The author / narrator distances his reader from the events he recounts because he tells the audience what happened rather than making his readers front row spectators as drama unfolds on the page. Narrative summary is often written in the past tense, while a story that engages its readers relies on the immediacy of present tense.
Avoiding over reliance on narrative summary is relatively easy if you rely on another piece of advice from Mark Twain. “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
Good storytelling is built on action. Show the your characters doing something. Use dialogue to reveal their characters, show their hopes and dreams, the obstacles they face, and their thoughts and feelings. Good dialogue brings a story to life. As novelist Elmore Leonard once explained, “Readers tend to skip along through novels, but, they won’t skip dialogue.”
When an author employs narrative summary details of setting drop out of his account of what happened, missing an important opportunity to engage readers. While we often think of details of world building as tools of science fiction, fantasy, or historical writing, setting is an essential element of any good story. The reader is as likely to be drawn into the time and place of the story as the conflict. If the setting contains the sensory details to give the book’s world verisimilitude it can take the reader somewhere he has never been before.
Arthur Hailey, an very popular novelist of the 70s, 80s and 90s who sold over 170 million books, wrote what was sometimes called “faction.” He chose an industry in which to set each book: hospitals in The Final Diagnosis, Airport, Hotel, banking in The Money Changers, the auto industry in Wheels, and so on. “Each novel takes me, usually, three years,” said Hailey, “a year of continuous research, six months of detailed planning, then a year and a half of steady writing, with many revisions.” It was often the carefully detailed description of the novels setting based on the year of research, rather than the plot, which tended to follow the same lines in all of his books, that kept Hailey’s readers turning the pages.
Narrative summary may be useful in creating transitions, introducing or concluding a chapter, or compressing time in a story, but by and large your writing will be much better if the bulk of the story is told in dramatic scenes.
If you are currently writing a story or want to revise one you have already written to make it more appealing to readers one of the best ways to improve your manuscript is to find all the places in which you have employed narrative summary. Then rewrite each of the passages as scenes.