Friday, January 4, 2013

Summarizing in Books: When it’s Good and When it’s Bad

Happy Friday everyone! Congratulations again to Caitin Manz on winning the Holiday Raffle! Like I mentioned in my previous post, I’m offering a way for writers to earn a manuscript critique by getting followers to join my blog.  I had to raise this number from 7 people to 15 people because my email was exploding with your enthusiasm! All those who’ve emailed me already will be locked in at 7 people. I’m incredibly excited for you all! My social life, on the other hand . . . J

I should also clarify that the people recruited must either publicly join my blog or join by email. And you or those you recruit can confirm by sending me an email to my address. However, if you send me the confirmation, I’ll have to email the individual mentioned so that they can confirm this as well.

It’s unbelievable, but I’m still editing all of your queries, so hopefully you should all get them sometime before June. Kidding! I’m going to try hard to get them done in the next two weeks. If you’ve revised your query and want me to edit the new version, please resend your query. 

Oh, and lastly, look out for more tabs on my website. I’m going to be working with authors who want to get their books (aka your book for all you published authors) promoted either by raffling off a copy/ebook, a book review, or an interview. Let me know if you are interested by sending me an email at

Okay! Let’s talk about summarizing.

What is a Summary, and What is its Function in a Story?
A summary is literarily what you have always been told it is: a concise retelling of a much longer event. Summaries are great tools utilized in writing to cover swaths of time or events the reader has already read about. Here are some examples:

Three days later I walked up to the stage, my heart pounding and my palms sweating.
Here the summary is “three days later.” This condenses a large length of time where no important events occur.

“What happened to you?” David asked, taking in the mud and blood that had crusted to my skin.
I filled David in on the attack and how my kidnapper knew about my connection to the stolen diamond.
This example illustrates another common way writers utilize summarizing. Because the reader has read about the kidnapping and the stolen diamond from earlier chapters, there is no reason to write out the entire discussion if no new and useful information related to the plot comes up.

When is it Bad to Summarize?
I have seen writers repeatedly make the mistake of summarizing events that should be scenes. Take the following for example:

We ran to the dock where, in the distance, I could make out at least a dozen vessels, all heading straight for us. The next few hours were spent attacking the invaders, and defending our seaside fortress against their counterattacks. During the fight, Evan died, and we buried him the following day along with the rest of the dead.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a scene I want to read. However, the writer here summarized the entire attack and the death of someone s/he knew. This could’ve easily taken up a couple scenes and would have ratcheted up reader excitement. Instead, not only does the writer miss out on that opportunity, this can actually lead to reader irritation.

Why are Good Scenes Summarized?
You might be wondering why a writer would ever summarize an exciting scene. I’ll start off by telling you that I have seen writers do this, and I have done it myself in some of my early drafts.

While I’m in no way a psychologist I think that many times writers avoid writing out these scenes because they are daunted by the idea of nailing such an important scene, or they are impatient to finish writing/editing their story. Thus they summarize and move on.

When Writers Make the Mistake of Not Summarizing
I have also seen writers not summarize events that should be summarized. The most common type is called filler. Filler consists of events that occur that do not have anything to do with the plot of the book. Driving around, getting a manicure, going through an entire day of errands—all of these are events that, if they don’t have anything to do with the plot, are not of much importance and can slow a book down. For a more in-depth discussion, please refer to my post on filler.

The other, less common, error I see is re-discussing an event from another character’s perspective. Say Sam and Tom ran into each other in the hall. The first scene might be from Tom’s perspective of running into Sam, and in the following scene, the scene is replayed, except now it’s Sam who is running into Tom. Unless there is a specific reason why such a scene needs to be repeated (such as time travel, a clue or observation the reader can only pick up by reading the scene from both points of view, etc.), the latter scene should be summarized.

In conclusion, summarizing is a great tool to cover unimportant periods of time and [lengthy] dialogue that would otherwise repeat a scene already discussed. Summarizing can be bad when it is used in place of a scene, but conversely, it is necessary in order to remove filler and repeated scenes.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Alexandra LyngstadJanuary 4, 2013 at 9:57 PM

    Thanks for good tips!

  2. thank you for this informative post, laura :)


    1. Good to hear from you Leila! Thank you for reading! :)


  3. "The other, less common, error I see is re-discussing an event from another character’s perspective." I saw this done in a recently-published, well-regarded book, and it really caught me by surprise because it didn't, in my view, present something really new. The book itself was pretty good overall, but the couple of instances of this repetition surprised and puzzled me. Nice post, Laura!

    1. Thanks Jeff! It is amazing how many published books make these mistakes. Another famous example is The Hunger Games trilogy, which summarizes many, many areas that could’ve been made into exciting scenes. I hope the holidays treated you well!


    2. I was thinking of the Hunger Games when I read your post. Brilliant book, but I found myself wondering one too many times...why isn't this an actual scene?


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