Snagging on Summarizing

Stacey Kite

There are lots of places in a book where the reader needs some detail but not a lot:

  • When one character has to explain something to another character that the reader already knows.
  • When characters travel from one place to another, but nothing key to the plot happens during the journey itself.
  • When significant time passes between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next.
  • When transitioning from one important sequence within a scene to the next key sequence.

In those cases—and a lot of others—writers summarize. Maybe summarize isn’t the correct literary term, maybe it’s telling when showing would be a waste of time. Either way, it’s something I struggle with.

This has always been an issue for me. I know when I should summarize (tell instead of show)—that’s abundantly clear—but trying to actually do it shuts me down cold. I know this shouldn’t be a problem. To most people, it seems to be a “you just.” (You justs are things that sound easy, but aren’t: you just eat a balanced diet, you just write a good book, or you just find the time—as if two more hours a day were always lurking behind the sofa, and you just never bothered to look there before.)

It’s like I have a math block, only literary. And moving past those lines is the metaphorical equivalent of trying to walk with a rock in my shoe. Ever have that happen? Well to me, telling lines are nasty, little bits of gravel. Every time I try to write one, it pokes me in the brain. One ham-handed “… later …” will push all other thoughts off center stage until I can’t focus on the rest of the scene, no matter how vehemently I tell myself to just keep going. (The next time you get gravel in your shoe—just tell yourself to ignore it and keep walking.)

So, I give in and do the writing equivalent of taking off the shoe and whapping it a couple of times against a tree. Translation: I take another stab at the telling line, or many stabs at it, then try to move on. But as I take two steps forward—there it is again, dominating my thoughts. So, I go back and work on it some more. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat …

It’s so bad that sometimes, as I’m trying to re-work that irritating line that’s supposed to let the reader know this scene starts two days after the last one ended, I’ll find myself crafting an entire transition scene and tweaking the story’s plot to justify the new scene’s existence. That is ridiculous. I only needed one lousy phrase, buried in one introductory sentence—not an 800 word segue. Worse still, it doesn’t work. Even if that extra segment is engaging and interesting, it’s still a cul-de-sac that doesn’t get me any closer to the scene I actually needed to write in the first place. It’s the writing equivalent of running on a treadmill. It may feel like accomplishing a lot, but after all that effort, you’re still standing in the same place.

The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it.

OK—done that.

The next step—if you don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel—is to do some research on how other people have dealt with the same problem and apply their methods. But as far as I can tell, based on the many books and blogs on writing that I’ve read, no one else in the world has this same problem.

I can find gobs and gobs of advice on how to show-not-tell, but no one seems to have advice on how to tell. There’s plenty of material out there about when to tell—that’s not the problem—I know when my story needs a summary; my brain just blanks out when I try to actually write one. And then it totally freezes—like a computer with insufficient RAM.

So, here are two strategies for inventing this wheel that I’m going to try:

First, when I find myself unable to move past a summary or introduction line, I’m going to explain—out loud—what I want the line(s) to accomplish, as if telling someone else, and record myself. Then, I’ll go back to my story, change from black text to blue, and transcribe my babble—uh’s, fragments, stammers and all. Though it won’t produce anything resembling decent prose, I’m hoping it will be enough to get me past the sticking points so I can get on with the story.

If that doesn’t work, and I still find myself high-centered, I’m going to take a page from our Learn to Write by Reading Challenges and look through a few books to see how those authors phrased similar kinds of summary lines. It’ll be tedious and time-consuming, but if I can find enough examples, maybe I can figure out how to write one myself.

This second strategy has already helped a little. As I was walking my dog, half thinking about this post and half listening to an audiobook, I started to really pay attention to the author’s introductory lines when she started new scenes. They weren’t all the same, but most of them had some common elements: a phrase regarding the elapsed time, the scene’s location, what the main character was doing before the new scene really started and an event that actually triggered the new scene. As I listened, I started coming up with a few introduction lines for scenes in my story.

For example:

Three days after the accident (time reference), as Riley sat (what the character’s doing) in the infirmary (location) eyeing her congealing breakfast (what the character’s doing), the investigators came to interview her (event triggering the start of the new scene).

Another version might be—

On the third day after the accident (time reference), two investigators came  to the infirmary (triggering event and location) to interview Riley. She’d been picking at her breakfast (what the character was doing before the event), but at the sight of their guardsmen’s uniforms, her scant appetite vanished.

OK—I’m not saying those are great lines, but they’re probably enough to get me into the actual scene and moving forward again.

The hitch is that those lines are for a scene I wrote months ago, not the one I’m working on now. Still, this strategy might have potential. I’ll let you know.

If you have this same issue, know you’re not alone. And if you have any specific strategies for working past it, feel free to share. (But please, no you justs. They just don’t help.)

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