Sometimes summary is appropriate. When your hero has to make a long journey, but the journey itself isn’t what’s important to the story, you could put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring, and arrived in Boston…” and get on with the Boston story. But if his ship is attacked by pirates, then you don’t put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring. The ship was attacked by pirates, but he fought valiantly beside the ship’s crew. The pirates were defeated, and a week later the ship arrived in Boston.”
No, no, no. Pirate attack? Valiant battle? That needs two or three whole scenes right there. At least.
Painful personal account: Years ago, in an early draft of my first novel, the fight scene in which the heroine was captured was about a page and a half and amounted to “they fought for a while, and then she was knocked out.” I’m exaggerating—it wasn’t quite that brief. But I had used narrative summary to skim over a critical turning point in the story. As my writing coach told me at the time “that is unacceptable.”
I needed to describe the whole thing, blow by blow. I didn’t want to. Fight scenes are hard to write, and I don’t enjoy them.
It took a whole afternoon, and a couple pots of tea, but I did it. I would write a sentence, get up, pace around, try to visualize the fight, go back write another sentence, repeat…and periodically realize half of what I had done was crap. Rewrite. Repeat. Wore me out. This is the hard work of writing, and it must be done, no matter how painful it is for us or our characters.
Narrative summary simply cannot be used at crucial turning points. It is only appropriate for describing things that are not important to the story but that are necessary for the reader to make a transition from one part of the story to another.
Is it summary, or is it infodump?
Another place “telling” shows up in manuscripts is when the author (or a character in the story) starts explaining things. This can be done well, but it can also be deadly, which is why we often caution authors to Resist the Urge to Explain.
Sometimes it is efficient to just slip in a sentence or two summarizing some point. Let’s take our man on the ship to Boston. If these are the days leading up to the American Revolution, a sentence or two would be appropriate to orient the reader in the historical period. This could easily be done with a single line of introspection from the viewpoint character.
Since the rebels had dumped the East India Company’s tea into the harbor at Boston, his employer had sent him to insure the safety of their own ships.
The same information could be contained in a line of dialog between the traveler and the ship’s captain.
Done. Get on with the story. A long passage of summary about tea, taxes, and the rebellion would be inappropriate. That would be the kind of infodump I call a research report.
Next time: The difference between Abstract Storytelling and Full Dramatization.