We spent the first two weeks of The Family History Writing Challenge discussing the various elements of writing great scenes. And we will continue to discuss scenes, we still have plenty to cover. However, let’s take a break from scene-writing, briefly, to talk about summary.
You’ve heard of scene and summary referred to as the building blocks of nonfiction. However, let’s approach it from another angle with our focus on the summary. A more appetizing angle.
Think of summary as the filling in your favourite layer cake. It holds the layers together, those layers being scenes. It supplies substance, secures the scenes together, and tastes, well, every bit as yummy as your scenes. It’s the icing between the layers, and it should be every bit a delicious as the cake itself. Each tasty in their own right, but together they come together in harmony to make a beautiful thing.
Like the icing in a layered cake, summary should be every bit as descriptive and engaging as scene. Summary should be as good as scene. Often it might take us a little more time to develop our scene writing skills, and therefore, we focus a lot of attention on it. Summary is the easy part of this dynamic pairing.
Summary provides background information; it’s a place to deliver material that doesn’t occur in a specific scene. Summary compresses time, when you want to jump ahead several weeks, months or years, summary can transport you there quickly.
Summary is used for reflection by the ancestor or the author, provides a place to insert some interior monologue, a stream consciousness or narrative commentary.
But often it results in an information dump. And while the scenes may be terrific, the summary becomes dry and dull. A flat tasteless summary will serve nobody. Not you. Not your reader. You want your reader to enjoy the summary just as much as the scene. What good is all your wonderful scene writing if you lose your reader because of a dry, boring summary. No cutting corners, no mind-numbing information, give it the same care and attention you give your scenes.
We can’t just use it to dump information. Like your scenes summary should have great description, detail, and figurative language. There is no getting lazy in summary.
Over the last several days we’ve talked about description and detail and figurative language. You should not reserve these tools for scenes. Use concrete and specific details and sensory details to create memorable summary. Also, use metaphors, similes and personifications to create vivid summaries. Summary doesn’t include spoken dialogue, but you can tell the reader what was spoken.
The summary is most often used to set up a scene, or to follow a scene depending on where the scene occurs in the story. Avoid opening stories or chapters with summary, grab your reader with scene first. Use your summary to relay important events that happened in the past or details about your ancestor that are useful for understanding the protagonist ancestor or secondary ancestors. Summary can also be used to create tension before the scene.
Summary does not have to stand alone as long pages of script. You can insert a summary into a scene, such as to share background information, to show a transformation in ancestor through reflection, to provide background information to help the reader understand the ancestor, to understand a transformation in the ancestor, or to control the pace of the scene. A line or two inserted in the middle of a scene can be much more effective than saving it all for a long winded explanation after the scene.
Summary can also be used to change the pace of the story. For instance, to cover a long span of time in which insignificant events occurred or repeating events, the writer often uses a summary, which tells the reader what happened.
Regardless of why you have chosen to write your summary or what will be in it, it still needs to be entertaining and enjoyable to read.
Strive to move seamlessly between scene and summary when writing your story.
Many beginning writers summarize too much of the story, telling the reader too many events and compressing too much time. So the story results in a lack of depth. While other writers don’t summarize enough of the story, creating too many scenes of insignificant events. Remember save scenes for important events, conflict, confrontation, turning points, crisis and climax. Re-create Important moments into scenes.
Avoid writing general and abstract summary narratives. Summary needs to provide the reader with concrete and specific details every bit as much as scene.
As a family history writer, you are tasked with not only balancing scene and summary but making them equally devouring to read.