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Narative Summary


There is an art to narrative summary. Ideally the information should be related through the point of view character's lens, not an info dump, like this:

The city was founded in 1779 by tea and sugar plantation owners who commissioned elaborate mansions on top of the hill with a view of the inlet that was large enough to dock their ships. Small villages soon cropped up along the periphery to house the tradesmen needed to service their needs. Over the centuries, the spaces between were filled until it became a crowded, mish-mash of squalor and grandeur.

This passage provides the information, but dully and through the prism of the writer, not the character. 

Info dumps are often found in prologues, epilogues, summaries of what happened in previous books, long dialogue passages, as you know dialogue, long explanations of how things work, and extensive backstory.

Here are a few examples of how to use narrative summary effectively.

1. Narrative summary helps you skip ahead.

Sometimes you have to provide important background, condense time, and relate events that don't deserve a lot of page time through narrative summary. 

The call came at five o'clock on a Saturday. Dick never forgot the pitch of the sun through the pines or the way his boots sank in the mud as he arrived at a scene to view his first corpse. After fifteen years, he'd seen so many bodies, in myriad locations,and every season.He no longer got the shakes, or the sicks, or the rapid pulse, but the scent of pine, dirt, and dying heat still filled his nostrils when he received a summons. Funny how some things stuck. He snapped on gloves and booties before ducking under the yellow tape blocking a snow-drenched alleyway in the heart of downtown Chicago. "What've we got?" 

Narrative skips over the boring bits. Shift it into real-time when possible, particularly if you find paragraphs of it. Use specific details and strong word choices.

1) Narrative summary can offer new information or recap necessary information. 

It should support, extend, or refute the information given through dialogue and action. It can add context in a timely fashion and set up expectation. It uses a few words that work hard and lead into or trail action and dialogue. If narrative runs on for paragraphs or pages, you have some editing to do.

The carpet fibers were a dead end: could have come from any low-rent apartment anywhere in town. The call-ins were a bunch of attention-seeking loonies. No legitimate suspects. No obvious motive. No one seemed to know anything about Jane. That was the problem these days: everyone had bloody telephones and computers and social media but never talked to their neighbors. Jane worked from home and played games with virtual friends. She ordered everything online or shopped at big box stores where everyone was strange and a stranger. There were no angles to grab hold of. Who would kill a girl who never seemed to leave her flat? But girls didn't just drag themselves into the woods, cover themselves with debris, and choke themselves with their own pantyhose.

2. Narrative transitions between scenes.

Dick skipped the shower and shave and was at the crime scene by nine thirty. He stood next to the corpse lying on the ground who obviously hadn’t shaved in days either and the bath in the river hadn’t done him any favors.

3. Narrative wrinkles time.

Four days sped by in a series of dead leads and dull conversations. Dick tackled the stacks of paperwork he had successfully ignored for a month, drank gallons of coffee, and smoked endless packs of cigarettes. His anxiety grew like a bonfire as he waited for the DNA results.


Revision Tips
? Read through your manuscript. Highlight areas that contain narrative. Decide whether you should turn narrative into action and dialogue. If not, is it serving a distinct purpose? Does it support, extend, add to, or refute a proposition? Does it condense time or provide important background?
? Does it involve tertiary characters or actions that are of lesser importance?
? Does it involve clich├ęs?
? Have you told the reader what someone thinks or feels instead of showing it?

For more revision tips on revision and narrative summary check out.

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