Summarizing a Conversation Snippet

Stacey Kite

Every writer has strengths and weaknesses. A writer who is a natural at dialog may struggle with action or description or something else. My Achilles’ heel is narrative summary—in all its many forms. (Arrrg!) That is a problem, because every book has narrative summary.

When it’s done well, readers don’t even notice the summarizing. It just seems like a natural part of the story. But if it’s not done well, it sticks out—like mustard on ice cream.

In my most recent battle with the summary beast, I’ve been struggling to write a snippet of scene where my protagonist tells a couple of other characters what happened to her in an earlier scene. But, since the reader already knows what happened, I don’t want to write the protagonist re-hashing the event step-by-step. Which means I need to use narrative summary—my evil nemesis. So, after beating my head against my computer for far too long, I decided to go through a few books to see how good authors handle that kind of summary.

The first thing I discovered was that those examples are difficult to find. It takes a lot of careful sifting through a book to spot them. The actual summary lines are pretty short, generally consisting of a she-told-them-everything phrase followed by a from-X-to-Y statement, and they disappear in the text. Still, I found three before I was halfway through the first book, so they are there. (My husband bet I wouldn’t find a single one. Hah!)

Second, even though the summary lines themselves are simple, what makes them work is that the writers follow those lines with non-verbal character reactions and back-story or description that gives the reader insights into the characters’ … um … characters.

For example, if the teller is the POV character of the scene, the writer usually follows the summary with a line about how long it took the POV character to tell her story, then spends a lot more time describing how the other character listened.

That listening description is key to making the summary feel like more than logistical house-keeping. It always involves facial expressions and body language cues that show the reader how the listener feels, but often also includes bits of pertinent background information about the listener (information that the speaker knows) which shows something about the relationship between the two people.

On the other hand, if the POV character is the listener, the summary line is usually followed by a memory the speaker’s words conjure in the POV character’s head, which leads to a chain of thoughts and feelings making the reader empathize more with the POV character.

All that sounds a little convoluted, but my point is that when I need to have one character tell another character something the reader already knows, my emphasis should be on how the character reacts to the news, not on the news itself, and I should use that as a segue into a paragraph or two that fleshes out my characters’ relationships.

Now, I’m off to write and work at turning my mustard topping into berry compote.

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