Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

How can I make summary interesting?

In fiction, scene should do the heavy lifting, but not everything is meant to unfold in detail. Summary is often used to fill in bits of a character's background, convey information, transition between scenes, or zoom through time. Use it when necessary, and dole it out in small doses.

When you summarize, you compress time. But you don't have to lose flavor and precision in the process. Vivid summary relies on specificity. In Jhumpa Lahiri's short story “The Third and Final Continent," the narrator, who is living in Boston, travels back to Calcutta for his arranged marriage. He brings his wife, Mala, to Boston with him and the first week is an adjustment:

I still was not used to coming home to an apartment that smelled of steamed rice, and finding that the basin in the bathroom was always wiped clean, our two toothbrushes lying side by side, a cake of Pears soap from India resting in the soap dish.

Summary can cover a longer span of time. Still, specificity keeps it engaging. In Anthony Doerr's short story “For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story," Griselda runs away with a metal eater she meets at a carnival, leaving her mother and her sister, Rosemary, behind. For years Rosemary's life plods along:

She gained weight; her feet wore down the soles of shoes. She took meticulous grocery lists to Shaver's, balanced her checkbook with a nubbed pencil, fed soup to her crumbling mother. She did not bother to clean the house or buy makeup. The curtains went gray; Twinkie wrappers sprouted from couch cushions; ants roved in the metal mouths of soda cans stuck to windowsills.

An interesting voice can also add to the intrigue of summary. In Russell Banks' novel Rule of the Bone, the fourteen-year-old narrator leaves home and starts dealing drugs. Months pass like this:

In the beginning and all winter I was only dealing small-load weed to the bikers which was cool because A, lots of kids in Au Sable were dealing then mostly in school where I never went near anyhow but everywhere around town too so we were like a swarm of flies and it was low-risk to be one of them what with so few swatters. And B, it didn't feel like a wrong thing to be doing even though it was illegal.

When a moment doesn't need the treatment of a fully fleshed out scene, don't hesitate to move things along with summary. Keep it engaging and specific, and the reader won't even notice the transition.