1.03.2019

The Easy Way Out

When an author is learning to write, certain forms of prose come more easily than others. Dialogue might be likened to a baby’s first steps, since almost all writers can record the cadence of spoken words. Toddling right after that is the narrative summary. While it is used in a variety of ways, the most common is recapitulating an event in the past.

Why does this device come so naturally? It corresponds to the distance a beginning writer feels to his work. The hardest task in writing is concentrating so hard, the words seem to flow from the mind of the character narrating a scene. A neophyte author might achieve short bursts of such intensity, such as during a scene when a character is furious, but for the most part the character performs more like a child’s stick drawing. Move X here and have him stare. Move Y there and have her nod . . .

A narrative summary is a way to escape that mawkish stuff. An author can launch into a passage that tells in hindsight how a mother reacts when her daughter dyes her hair purple. The thoughts the mother has can be inserted to personalize the narrative point of view. The framework is perfect for using pithy words to describe a character’s personality traits—“She knew Annie, always so quiet, would not respond well to shouted imprecations.”

Don’t ever doubt that the narrative summary is an extremely useful tool in storytelling. You can handle minor matters in capsule form. Annie’s pink hair might be only a footnote in a tale about meth addiction. Yet the summary form itself can be addicting. I have read entire manuscripts that consist largely of narrative summaries. I can sense the author thinking: Why not keep using what is coming out of my hand so well?

That is where the dictum show, don’t tell comes into play. The reason an author should try to make his major points through active scenes is that a reader can participate. You can show what happens when quiet Annie is ridiculed by her mother. Even better, you can reveal personality attributes of the mother at the same time. In other words, the filters are removed.

The occasional thoughts used to flavor a narrative summary with a character’s point of view turn into an ongoing flow of thoughts the character has while pushing the story forward. Readers are allowed to take away from the text what they will. The text truly unspools because you’re not holding it in your tight little hand.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for narrative summaries. When you encounter one, ask yourself: how important is this incident for the novel? Take those you think are striking and see if you can transform them into a full scene. See if you can change the timing of the scene so it occurs as the story is unfolding.

“The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine



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