Narrative Summary: What It Is and When It Works

Many professional writers and editors love to hate narrative summaries—dubbing it “info dumping.” There’s good reason to be wary of the overuse of narrative summary, but people tend to overlook its applications. As with any writing technique, a thorough understanding of how and when to utilize narrative summaries can help you add depth to your stories.

Tread carefully, however. Misusing narrative summaries can have the opposite effect, leaving your story dull and lifeless. 

What Is Narrative Summary?

In fiction, “narrative summary” describes the process of providing a lot of information in as few words as possible. In order to achieve this, certain things such as dialogue, emotions, and overly flowery descriptions are cut out, leaving only a synopsis of the information the reader needs to know.

Narrative summary operates like the opposite of the principle of “show, don’t tell,” since the entire point is to summarize what you need to explain briefly and efficiently. 

Aren’t Narrative Summaries Boring?

Narrative summaries are often criticized for being dull, and that can certainly happen. However, there’s a (not so) secret trick you can employ to make your narrative summaries feel more like an integrated part of the story. 

What’s the trick? Narrative summaries need details. 

Spending a line or two to ground readers in a scene can help them imagine what is happening, and keep them engaged for longer. Even if a detail doesn’t seem important (such as a bird singing outside the window, the pattern of sunlight on the floor, or the smell of a musky cologne) including the right one can help establish the mood of the scene without stating it explicitly, and highlight the things that characters within the scene notice and/or care about. In this way, your narrative summary can achieve something beyond what you see at face value—namely adding characterization and humanity to the characters in the scene. 

Keep in mind that, although details are important, adding too many can slow the story’s momentum down too much and make the summary drag on. You want to make sure you include enough details to support the summary, but not so many that it ruins the pacing. This is where beta readers can really come in handy since it can be hard to grasp how well your story is paced when you spend hours and hours writing a scene that someone will read in ten minutes. 

How to Write a Narrative Summary

At its core, narrative summaries are straightforward descriptions. You should start with an objective account of what you want to summarize first, and build off of that. If you want to summarize a scene in which a person is followed home from their nightshift job, for example, then you should start by writing the essential points out.

I left work at 3:24 a.m., even though my shift was supposed to end at 3. When I left to go home, I noticed the only other car on the road following me home. 

In the example above, you have the bare skeleton of a narrative summary. You know what you want to happen, but there isn’t enough information here to make it interesting. At this point, you would start including details to make the summary more fun to read.

My shift got out at 3 a.m., but I didn’t leave until 3:24. A customer had spilled their soda across a display of single-serving chip bags, and I told my coworker I would stay behind to clean it up. The sticky beverage proved difficult to clean off the rack, so by the time I left, the roads were empty and quiet. Even the Taco Bell across the street had closed its drive-through. It wasn’t until I was almost home that I noticed the car coasting behind me with its headlights off, completely shrouded in darkness. 

Writing this same situation out as a scene instead of a summary could take several pages or even an entire chapter. As a narrative summary, however, it works to not only summarize the information quickly but also build suspense by reading more like a personal account of the character’s experiences. 

When to Use Narrative Summaries

Narrative summary is a vital part of writing fiction, and it is especially important in fantasy and science fiction genres. However, a story that consists of only narrative summaries tends to be a bit dry and uninteresting. Without emotional scenes and gripping dialogue, characters tend to be a lot harder to relate to, after all. As such, much of the challenge of writing narrative summaries comes from knowing when to use them, and when to utilize other techniques. 

Every story needs a balance of narration and scenic storytelling. The balance may be different depending on the story and the genre, but both are required for creating comprehensive and engaging stories. If there’s too much summary, the story will be boring and hard to relate to, but if there isn’t enough summary, the story could end up stalling and being pretty exhausting to read.

Although there is no perfect formula, there are several situations in which it makes more sense to utilize narrative summary than any other strategy. Remember that exceptions exist for all of these points. These situations are:

  • Major transitions. When you transition between major scenes, you don’t generally need to draw attention to every little detail in the environment. You don’t need to focus on the characters’ emotions, the decor, or the mood of a scene that is coming to a close—you just need to end the scene and establish what readers need to know about the next one. 
  • Prologues. Prologues provide information about a story before it begins, usually in relation to characters, world history, lore, or recurring plot points. As you can imagine, they are generally objective and informative, necessitating the use of narrative summaries. 
  • History. When characters (or narrators) provide information about the past, it is generally told in a straightforward way. Only the information that is necessary to understand is shared, so characters (and readers alike) can get on with the story in the present. 
  • Explanations. Whether you’re describing a character’s job duties or going over the properties of a specific herb, it’s usually best to do so quickly. 
  • A complex setting. When it is important for readers to know specific things about a location’s layout or features, establishing the setting with a narrative summary can help. There will be fewer distractions to interfere with readers’ ability to understand and remember important details. 
  • The “boring parts.” Every story has them. You can utilize narrative summaries to skip through parts that are important for context but not very interesting to read at length. 

When NOT to Use Narrative Summaries 

With that said, there are several situations in which it is generally ill-advised to use narrative summaries. Scenes that are intended to be meaningful or emotional should never be told in an objective, informative way. In these situations, it is better to utilize the idea of “show, don’t tell.” 

These situations are:

  • Flashbacks
  • Character introductions
  • Character interactions and conversations
  • Meaningful settings, objects, and actions
  • Big events
  • Emotional scenes
  • Action scenes
  • And more

Any time you feel inclined to tell readers how to feel about a situation, you should probably show them instead. With narrative summary and “show, don’t tell” being functional opposites, it can help to have a thorough understanding of how the latter works as well. Be sure to check out Show, Don’t Tell: What It Is and How to Use It (With Examples) next!