Writing Fiction: Summary or Action?

When you’re more than halfway through your story and you reach a critical chapter, do you recap (summarize) or do you act it out? The pace at which your story unfolds boils down to summary vs. action.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss any story’s basic needs at different points of a scene, chapter or act.

Summary v. Action

In case you’re not quite sure of the difference, summary is you as the writer telling the reader what happened or summarizing in a way that does not include recreation of the actual scene’s event. Action is scene, where you dramatize, recreate or act out the event.

In Action, you’ll use concrete sensory detail, dialogue and people doing stuff. You’ll see more white space on the page as characters interact. And you’ll act out a scene’s beginning, middle and end, just like the overall novel. A scene is action—what you’d experience if you saw a theater production or a movie.

Contrast action with a narrative summary. As the name implies, you use exposition or narrative summary to inform readers of parts of the story which aren’t pivotal. These include the passage of time, repeating events or anything in the story that could be described quickly to give readers a sense of a fully three-dimensional life. Think of summary as a bridge between dramatic scenes.

Skip the Boring Stuff

You may have heard Elmore Leonard’s famous advice that writers should “skip the boring stuff.” Why? Readers have signed on to your story’s promise. You promise to show them how your protagonist overcomes worthy obstacles to meet a goal. In life, we often go through long periods of routine and sameness before something exciting happens. But in fiction, most of these routine events should be implied or at least summarized.

I once read a student’s manuscript where every chapter began with the character getting out of bed., shuffling into slippers and heading to the kitchen for coffee. Realistic? In my world, absolutely. But in a story, readers only want to go from one tension to the next higher tension—the next scene where something important to the story occurs. We can safely assume most characters will have some sort of routine and therefore, we don’t need to act it out.

Some writers mistakenly think their stories must stay true to time, as in a timeline. But if nothing consequential happens during a time period, you can safely either briefly summarize, use a transition or omit altogether. For instance, if on Friday a high school girl is hoping to bump into her dream guy in the hall, but it doesn’t happen, you might consider summarizing the weekend or jumping directly to the next time this meet could occur. Leave out stuff that doesn’t matter to the story.

Leave out stuff that doesn’t matter to the story.

Slow Down High Points

In contrast, your story’s important scenes, where things change or where your character must overcome some obstacle, demand action. Readers want to “be” your character and experience what he/she does to win or lose in the scene. If you only summarize, readers will feel cheated. Slowing down here means readers get the scene as it unfolds.

Acting out requires more space and takes longer to read through. These scenes of high tension that unfold slowly also alert readers of their importance. The higher the tension, the more you’ll want to slow down and let readers experience the scene with the character in real time.

At these pivotal scenes, be sure to dive deep into POV so your readers with get more than information. Readers really crave feelings. Emotions in Fiction create a second kind of bridge—one between the reader and the character. What a character does is important, and what that character feels is even more critical to keeping readers reading.

As long as we’re talking “big moments,” in very high-tension scenes, as a general rule you’ll want to use shorter sentences, both in dialogue and action. It’s a paradox that the more you slow down a scene, the faster you’ll want dialogue, action and even narrative to be in terms of length of sentences. Knowing where to write a scene and where to summarize creates a logical, satisfying pace for your readers.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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