Tell Like Heck: Writing Summary

Have you ever been told that you need to SHOW NOT TELL?  Did you take that advice and as you converted your piece to showing, it became longer and longer as you added details and actions?  Until it became that sweater you knitted with arms far too long.  Ok, I am the one who knitted that sweater.  The knitting had become a rhythm it was easier to maintain than to stop.  Like writing with lots of showing.

The long-winded sweater with the sleeves conveniently covered up

When I convert “telling” into “showing,” there are times when I have to ask myself if that information was really necessary to show. Then I start to wonder what showing really means. To me, it’s easier to consider scene versus summary.  They are both tangible components of writing memoir or fiction.

In creative nonfiction courses, there were times I was misled about scene and summary.  In these workshop courses, I received feedback from various instructors and other readers.  Although the official word was that a variation of scene and summary is important–that sometimes scene is needed and at other times summary makes more sense–when I tried to write even two sentences back to back of summary, I was told to write it in scene.

I could be exaggerating, but you get the idea.  Maybe you’ve had this experience yourself.  The intention is often good—the idea being that writers need to practice their scenes and become adept at those.

Nevertheless, sometimes the advice is just a reflex.  I admit that I’ve given this advice plenty of times myself, but I try to only do so when I genuinely think that at that point the piece screams for a scene.

What’s come of the advice I’ve gotten to always “show” or create scene is that while I think I have an idea of how to transform summary into scene, I am pretty clueless about writing summary.  I got almost no practice at it in course work because nobody would let me do it.

It’s helpful to me to recognize that most writing which we enjoy reading (a novel, for instance) is written using both scene and summary.  Summary can be just as effective as scene, depending on the style, the voice, and the goals of a particular piece.  Look at this passage from Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club:

The night’s major consequences for me were internal. The fact that my house was Not Right metastasized into the notion that I myself was somehow Not Right, or that my survival in the world depended on my constant vigilance against various forms of Not-Rightness. Whenever I stepped into the road at Leechfield’s one traffic light, I usually expected to get plowed down by a Red Ball truck flying out of nowhere (unlikely, given the lack of traffic). I became both a flincher and a fighter. I was quick to burst into tears in the middle of a sandlot baseball game and equally quick to whack someone in the head without much provocation. Neighborhood myth has it that I once cold-cocked a five-year-old playmate with an army trench shovel, then calmly went back to digging. Some of this explosiveness just came from a naturally bad temperament, of course. But some stems from that night, when my mind simply erased everything up until Dr. Boudreaux began inviting me to show him marks that I now know weren’t even there.

All engaging writing.  All summary.  But if Karr had shown this information in scene it would have dragged the book down unnecessarily.  It follows a crucial and well-developed scene.  I love how Karr uses a varying pattern of scene and summary, a rhythm which adds to the reader’s enjoyment.


Writing Prompt:  Select a topic about a bad habit you have, such as biting your nails.  Write a scene which shows you at your worst as you are practicing your habit.  Then write a paragraph, like Karr’s, which summarizes how engaging in this behavior makes you feel and what it’s done to your life, using a couple of concrete examples as she does with hitting the other child with the shovel and getting hit by not just any truck, but a Red Ball truck.  Where do you want to go from there?  You have an ending to write.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Writing prompt

8 responses to “Tell Like Heck: Writing Summary

  1. Great, useful stuff! Yes, interesting to contemplate – what the knitted together sweater means compared to the loose ball of yarn. I eagerly read to the bottom! And, will use!

  2. I’m glad to know I’m not the only writer who has struggled with this. I agree wholeheartedly that it is one area where writing classes go too far. There are some things that just don’t need to be conveyed that way and for which the details become burdensome (to me AND the reader). I think once you understand how to write in scene, the rest of it has to come from instincts and understanding how to tell a good story…the kind of understanding that comes from reading good writing.

    • lucewriter

      Dawn, that’s a great point about reading good writing. And for me it’s looking at it as a writer, too, because the first time I read Karr I assumed it was mostly scene as it felt that way, but when I read it again and paid attention I was shocked at how much summary is in that book.

  3. I got to meet Tobias Wolff a while back, and one of his pearls of wisdom was that the best thing about workshops is that you learn how to ignore some advice. I think your comments here on workshops being able to mislead is spot on – we must always remember workshops are reading your work and providing critique because they feel obliged to, a much different place than other readers will come from.

  4. lucewriter

    What a thrill to meet Wolff! Haha, very very interesting advice! I hadn’t really thought of it from that perspective–that those WS critiques are “because they feel obliged to,” but now that you mention it I can see that you are correct. That puts a whole new spin on things. Thanks so much for your insights.

  5. I recently read some information on this where the author (writing authority) said that scenes happen “in time” and summaries happen “out of time.” This was helpful for me…another way to explain showing versus telling.

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