The third in Floyd Hyatt’s series of six. This one addresses a problem that’s especially irritating when one is reading aloud.
When To Use A Summary
There are times when a summary is useful in a story. The best use is where you are writing a serial, and need to quickly state what has gone before. There are other appropriate uses, though be careful with these.
One might be in a long novel, where a sub-story or complicated plot has left the reader needing a long memory to return to the main story objective. Ideally, this shouldn’t happen, but it can. When it does, the mechanism of updating some infrequent appearing character, or having your protagonist reconsider his progress might be useful. Just be sure you are not being generally redundant, and that your use is necessary. First, ask yourself why you have gotten in a situation that could require one in the first place. Is there too much extraneous blather in your prose that has not “pointed the way” in your story? If there is, some revision might be a better option.
Story prose should all be shaped to tell the tale, If somewhere you have wandered away from the story’s needs, like a dementia patient’s memories, fix these episodes, then re-evaluate your need for a summary.
I find summation overuse a common problem, even with published authors’ works. I often end up skipping over such word count wasters in novels. Sometimes they are appreciated, but most often they seem just to pad the story out. This is a good area to remain sensitive to in your Beta reader’s general comments. It is also a hard thing to evaluate on you own, as an author.
After all, you know where the plot is supposed to be going, and have it in mind every time you pick up the manuscript. Not so, the reader.
There is a general axiom that each chapter in a story should encourage the reader to want to read on. I would soften this view somewhat. The story should continually keep the the reader curious as to the story’s outcome. Readers want to know “How It Turns Out”. It is hard to imagine this to be the case, if the reader comes to places where he/she no longer even knows where the story is going, what issues are being resolved, or what choices are looming or being shaped for your protagonists. The trick is not to depend on a summary to provide continuity, if at all possible. The old axiom, tell ’em what you told em, then tell ’em again, is better speech writing advice than good novelist technique.
Thanks for another wonderful, useful post, Mr. Hyatt!
WRITING PROMPT: If you have a work in progress, scan for summaries–including ones in dialog–and be honest about whether or not they’re really needed. Can the narration say, “Aileen filled the others in while they ate,” rather than have Aileen detail what the reader just read?