Fatal Summary

Controlling reader involvement is another necessary component of suspension of disbelief. Making readers care about your story is the first step. Thereafter, making them continue to care will encourage them to stick with your characters, willingly following the events in their imagination.

However, reader involvement can be discouraged, diminished, and even lost altogether when an author relies too heavily on narrative summary.

One of the five modes of discourse available to writers, narrative condenses story events or information into a summarized capsule that can boost story pacing, skim over trivial incidents, manage background or explanation, and transition quickly from one setting or time to another.

Narrative is extremely useful, but it carries a price in that it doesn’t lend itself to reader involvement.

Think of how you feel when a friend starts telling you about a terrific novel she’s just read. You’re interested at first, thinking you might want to read the book yourself, but when she launches into a lengthy summary of the entire plot, your interest flags, then you become bored, and finally you stop listening. Eager friend has spoiled it for you by skimming through the best parts, giving away the plot twists, and–worst of all–making it impossible for you to experience the novel in your imagination as it unfolds.

Therefore, when you write fiction, try not to fall into the trap of thinking you’re quickening pace by summarizing the dramatic action. Unless forced by length restrictions to shorten a story, you should never condense important scenes.

By their very purpose and construction, scenes are the most involving dramatic points a short story or novel can offer. Because of that, they are written in a way that immerses readers into the situation, the conflict, and every moment of the action and dialogue that transpires. But summarize a scene or important event, and you render it insignificant in a reader’s perception.

Suddenly, having set up reader expectation for exciting scene action, you drop kick your readers out of that vicarious experience.

It can be quite an unpleasant jolt when it happens. If readers enjoy the story otherwise, they’ll forgive such momentary turbulence and continue. But do this too often in the same tale, and you may well lose your audience completely.

For example, for the past week or so, I’ve been trying to read a mystery novel called PHOTO FINISH by Dame Ngaio Marsh. I’ve known about this author for years, but never acquainted myself with her work until a few months ago. She is considered one of the four original “queens of crime” from the golden age of mystery writing in the 1920s-1930s.

So far, I’ve read perhaps three or four of her books, all of them competent mysteries that I enjoyed. This one, however, I am struggling to finish. I’ve read another book since starting PHOTO FINISH, and I find myself doing other things instead of picking up the book. Worst of all, after several days, I have only reached the halfway mark.

(All fairly fatal signs, don’t you think?)

Now, in all fairness, PHOTO FINISH was published in 1980, two years before Dame Ngaio’s death. It was the next-to-last book she published, and I hope that I can do as well in my nineties after such a lengthy, distinguished, and successful career. The story is set in her native New Zealand, and her depictions of the scenery take me to a remarkable, most unusual backdrop.

Yet despite the flamboyant characters and exotic setting, despite the by-now familiar protagonist–Inspector Alleyn–and his wife Troy, the story just isn’t holding my attention.

The story premise is rock solid and exciting. The plot itself has a few hiccups, chiefly because at the halfway point there’s been no crime committed and as yet there’s still no mystery to solve. However, I realized that the primary reason I’m not engrossed is due to the author’s over-reliance on narrative.

The moment something exciting happens, Dame Ngaio pulls back the camera, so to speak, and relates the event in summary rather than letting the story action take place in moment-by-moment conflict. This unfortunate tactic, coupled with a lack of “real trouble” for the characters to handle, has created a slow, rather circular plot that’s stalled. And all the lovely scenery, vivid characters, and likeable protagonists are insufficient to hold my attention.

I’m going to finish reading PHOTO FINISH, even with gritted teeth and sheer determination, because I think it’s intriguing to see a notable author’s final works as well as her early efforts, but I am having to work much too hard to suspend disbelief in order to stay involved. Unfortunately, this particular story has become a curiosity for me rather than a novel that can carry me away.

Summarize too much of a story, and you end up with readers who just don’t care.


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7 responses to “Fatal Summary

  1. VE

    Very true about launching into the lengthy summary of a book, I will be bored definitely. Nice insights !

  2. It struck me that ‘Fatal Summary’ would make a good Culture spaceship name or even a title of a mystery for that matter. As always I enjoy reading your blogs, so thank you.

  3. 🙂 It has a catchy sort of panache, doesn’t it? I’m delighted that you enjoy my comments. Thanks for following!

  4. Oh, yes. I agree. I just finished reading the first and second chapters of a story that begins with a long, long summary and continues this narrative through the second chapter! I was bored out of my head. I am afraid the writer has decided to blame his reader, saying it’s the use of omniscient voice and complicated pacing. It’s been a lesson to me never to convince myself my bad story beginning is just misunderstood by readers.

    • Well said! I started reading a novel this morning with a long, rambling narrative of prologue, then a first chapter of more narrative in a different viewpoint, then a second chapter with the protagonist thinking about how boring her long meeting was. And all the while I’m wondering, when is there going to be story action?

      This particular author has been writing a mystery series for a few years now. Evidently she’s become complacent, but that is fatal for any author. I kept reading only because I was waiting on a car repair with nothing else to do. But I won’t be buying her next one.

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