Summary Passages Must Show and Tell

by Marylee MacDonald, June 3, 2017 in For Beginning Writers, For Writers Doing Revisions

Summary passages keep stories moving forward to the next “big scene.” A “scene” means the action that’s happening in pseudo-real-time. There’s conflict between people or between a person and a force of nature, and the author knows that readers want to see those moments dramatized. The protagonist confronts his or her nemesis or reaches a fork in the road. The tornado sweeps across the Plains, endangering the woman hiding in her basement. The daughter sits by her father’s bed, holding his liver-spotted hand and hoping she can find the courage to tell him what’s in her heart.

hands, compassion, help, summary passages

Image from Pixabay via jclk8888

As I mentioned in my previous post on the old writing maxim about “Show, Don’t Tell,” in those important scenes, readers witness the unfolding of events.

At the end of that post I began talking about what I call “summary passages,” although others refer to these same kinds of passages as exposition or narration or narrative summary. The point I want to make is that even in summary passages, writers must do a great deal of “showing.”

By placing visual and other sensory images before the reader’s minds-eye, the author is creating an illusion. The illusion is that we’re really there…in the story, participating, guessing how we’re supposed to feel, and looking for clues. We witness what happens. By providing information from all five senses, the authors reels us in.

Keep the Story Alive Through Details and Attitude

Telling can conjure up a character just as effectively as showing. Look at how the details in this passage bring the character back to life.

The excerpt below is charged with emotion, both the emotion of the dead girl and the emotions still acting on the town’s children. The story voice rings with moral indignation and irony, coloring our view of Missy Goodby.

Look at the amazing sounds: the thump and bop of the plastic pumpkin and the hiss of the dead girl’s taunts. Just as Chekhov talked about moonlight glancing off a piece of glass, the author uses the flash of light off the dead girl’s glasses to make child real. But McCracken doesn’t stop there. She finishes that sentence with “lazy eye.”

If Missy Goodby were alive, this would be a super characterization, but as it is, this passage sums up her whole life, including her burial, and that life flashes before us in vivid detail.

“Something Amazing”

Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.

McCracken, Elizabeth. Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Swoop Through Time

When you’re in telling mode, you can move the plot forward and get to the next important scene. In the passage below, several of these events could have been “dramatized,” meaning shown. Why didn’t Andre Debus take that path? Probably because he wanted us to get on to a bigger and better moment where the story would slow down and “show.”

Note the brief encounter with her date. We’re not watching the whole dinner scene, and we have only a brief glimpse of the sex scene on Mulholland Drive. Then Miranda flies to Boston and specific details like Beacon Street and the red rug make the apartment, and Miranda’s life there, “real.” Look at the skilled use of figurative language at the end of the sentence: “stalled escalator.” Dubus hasn’t slowed the story down to give us scenes of awkward dating. Instead, “stalled escalator” stands for this young man’s lack of drive.

“Miranda Over the Valley”

Miranda liked the approval in her parents’ eyes, and she took his arm as they walked out to the driveway, to his old and dented Plymouth parked behind the Corvette. They went to dinner and then drove and then stopped on Mulholland Drive, high above the fog lying over the San Fernando Valley, and out her window she saw stars and a lone cloud slowly passing the moon. She took his thick curly hair in one hand and kissed him and with her tongue she told him yes, told him again and again while she waited for him to know she was saying yes.

The next day her parents and Michaelis took her to the airport. She met Holly at the terminal and they flew to Boston. She was eighteen years old. She lived with Holly in a second-floor apartment Holly found on Beacon Street. It was large, and its wide, tall windows overlooked the old, shaded street. They put a red carpet in the living room and red curtains at the windows. Holly’s boyfriend, who went to school in Rhode Island, built them a bar in one corner, at the carpet’s edge. Holly was a year older than Miranda, this was her second year at Boston University, and the boys who came to the apartment were boys she had known last year. There were also some new ones, and soon Holly was making love with one of them. His name was Brian. When he came to the apartment Miranda watched him and listened to him, but she could neither like him nor dislike him, because she could not understand who he was. He was a student and for him the university was a stalled escalator:…

Dubus, Andre. Selected Stories

After reading the passage above, can’t you just feel that some big change is about to occur in this girl’s life? Whatever it is will involve young men.

Use Summary Passages When Characters Speculate or Imagine

Humans have a unique ability to project into the future and to imagine what other people might say or do. I learned this recently from Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, quite the storyteller himself.

Cromwell, 1. Earl of Essex, Thomas, summary passages

Image from Europeana via The European Library

In this passage from the novel, Wolf Hall, author Hilary Mantel knew that the main character, Thomas Cromwell, needed some way to connect the consequences of his (Cromwell’s) actions to those of his monarch, Henry V. Henry goes to his wife and asks her dissolve the marriage, but Mantel has a problem. She can’t show this in scene because Cromwell wouldn’t have been present during such an intimate moment.

Instead, she wrote the scene as she imagined Cromwell might have imagined it. This summary passage is pure speculation. Note the final sentence. Cromwell’s switch to Spanish–even though Mantel doesn’t give us the actual Spanish words–brings the reader right back into Cromwell’s consciousness.

It’s only with the Spanish words that we have an “aha” moment. These were Cromwell’s thoughts! Mantel wasn’t head-hopping. (The “this” referred to in the opening passage is the divorce Henry is seeking, and we know how that turned out!)

Before this can happen the king has to talk to Katherine; he can’t always be hunting somewhere else, while she waits for him, patient, implacable, his place set for supper in her private apartments. It is June 1527; well barbered and curled, tall and still trim from certain angles, and wearing white silk, the king makes his way to his wife’s apartments. He moves in a perfumed cloud made of the essence of roses: as if he owns all the roses, owns all the summer nights.

His voice is low, gentle, persuasive, and full of regret. If he were free, he says, if there were no impediment, it is she, above all women, that he would choose for his wife. The lack of sons wouldn’t matter; God’s will be done. He would like nothing better than to marry her all over again: lawfully, this time. But there it is: it can’t be managed. She was his brother’s wife. Their union has offended divine law.

You can hear what Katherine says. That wreck of a body, held together by lacing and stays, encloses a voice that you can hear as far as Calais; it resounds from here to Paris, from here to Madrid, to Rome. She is standing on her status, she is standing on her rights; the windows are rattled, from here to Constantinople.

What a woman she is, Thomas Cromwell remarks in Spanish: to no one in particular.

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall

Summary Passages Loaded With Sensory Detail

Two of the three writers in the examples above have mastered the short story form. In short stories the use of summary passages is essential. There’s just not much space, and the author can’t present everything in scene. Thus, these authors have loaded up on the sensory information so that readers can invest emotionally in what’s happening.

Seeing these examples reminds me how important it is to not just revise, but to “re-envision” a scene. Rather than laundry lists of adjectives, a few details tell readers what we want them to know. Whether we’re writing scenes or summary passages, we need to provide readers that visual and sensory information.


2 Responses to “Summary Passages Must Show and Tell”

  1. Really useful, as usual, Marylee.

    • Thanks, Barbara. I’m doing a series of classes and writing workshops this summer for the Mesa Public Library, and I’m having fun revisiting my favorite writers and puzzling out what they’re doing. Some of that’s likely to make it into my blog. On another subject entirely, I am so sorry for the terrible loss of life today in London.

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