There is a time and place for summary in every story, but it’s not when you’re writing an important or dramatic scene. The more important the scene, the more you need to slow down.
- Summary is useful when you need to move along and a wide brush stroke won’t detract from the story.
- Any important scene–one with dramatic tension, that develops a character, or advances the plot–is where you need to slow down your writing.
There’s an old adage: the faster the action, the slower the writing. If things are happening fast, or simultaneously, it’s going to take more ink to describe this to the reader in a way that presses emotional buttons.
You don’t want your pivotal moments to pass by in a blur. You want the reader to absorb every gritty detail. You want the impact on your character to resonate with your reader. And you want all that fast-paced action to be clear on the page.
Here’s an example from my own work. I was busy revising The Murder in Skoghall this past week–rewriting the climax, in fact–and this is what I found:
The leaves and debris on the trail were soggy and anywhere not covered by litter was already turned to mud. Mud that slid in through her Keens and oozed between her toes, making a slippery mess of the footbed. Lightning ripped across the sky. Jess felt somewhat protected by the tree cover, but still jumped at each boom of thunder.
Notice that paragraph is comprised of summary. I’m telling the reader what the trail was like. The verb was/were is used, and I actually say “Jess felt.” Yikes. Here’s the revised version:
Jess picked her way over fallen logs and branches. She put her foot down on what she had glimpsed as a bed of leaf litter, like so much of the trail before. She scanned out ahead in the narrow ring of lantern light, seeking the next place to land her foot. The cushion of debris, slick with rainwater, acted like an unmoored raft, sliding easily away when Jess shifted her weight onto it. She flung her arms out for balance as her feet lost their purchase, and the lantern knocked against a slender tree trunk beside the path. It went out. Jess swore as her ass landed where her foot should have been.
Notice in this revised paragraph that I avoid was/were. I put us firmly in Jess’s point of view, and the result is more tactile, more tangible. I later mention the mud coming in through her shoes and squishing between her toes, but cut it from this moment.
The second paragraph is a little longer, sure, but the payoff is great. In the first paragraph, there is the sense of things going on around Jess, or happening to her. In the second paragraph, we can feel what it’s like to pick our way along a treacherous path, performing a balancing act while trying to make it safely to the other side. As a result, we’re more likely to care when Jess falls on her ass.
And that is what slowing down is all about: being present in each and every moment.
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