Writing Summaries

If summary means a concise paragraph of information, then why would we write summaries? As Dave Hood said, summaries are a different type of writing style, in contrast to scenes, they tell us what’s happening rather than show us. But, what is seriously the point of this? How do authors use this?

It’s a good way to overview the most important facts of a character’s history. As an example of from my favorite book as of late:

“Spiff’s flying saucer crossing alien skies, the little astronaut in his goggles under the saucer’s glass dome. Often it was funny, but also it was beautiful…She started thumbing through an old Calvin and Hobbes, and thought, this. These red-desert landscapes, these skies with two moons. She began thinking about the possibilities of the form, about spaceships and stars, alien planets, but a year passed before she invented the beautiful wreckage of Station Eleven.” (88)

Here, Mandel reviewed the origin of Miranda’s graphic novel, and it was so simple. Something reminded her of the idea; she reflected how she invented it; and then Mandel stated that this led to the creation of the story. In this case, summary was used to summarize the length of time, the series of events that spurred her imagination and led to the creation of her story.

Another example is from a good friend’s book. Here, summary is used to describe part of a scene and help introduce the reader to the setting.

“The shop was a cavern of a place. Wire mesh and glass and plastic formed twisting passages, all reverberating with the squawks and squeal and screams of their trapped inhabitants. / A dog here, a fish there, those were the mostly normal ones. Other genesplics represented more ambitious endeavors. A horse the size of a wolf with the head and neck of a giraffe.” (17)

Busemi did a good job of setting up a story before we’ve fully been integrated into the scene. What this does is help create an image within the readers mind, and gives us something to imagine while we read along with the story.

And at the same time, it doesn’t have to be limited to just setting a scene. Writers can easily integrate a character’s emotions within it as well, meaning summaries can be used to summarize a character’s internal reflections.

“At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one…” (5)

What a beautiful way to lightly touch upon the thoughts of the main character from Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. By giving the biologist’s perspective of her surroundings, we know not only what the scenery looks like, but we are given the exact set of feelings and thoughts that we as the reader should be feeling, helping us align with the mood of the story so far. (Which, from my experiences, seems to teeter between science fiction and suspense.)

Summaries have multiple purposes, and even though I have only given a few examples, I encourage readers to find more, and to really examine what makes a summary such an effective tool. I definitely will be coming back to Area X by Vandermeer. This is my current read, and it has proved to be quite interesting.

Mandel, Emily. Station Eleven. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Print.

Buscemi, Matthew. Lore & Logos. Seattle, WA: Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. Print.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Print.


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