Someone with light-brown skin writing in a notebook.

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Your choice to either summarize or flesh out story events can determine whether your story is impactful or dead on arrival. Summary is an essential tool for zooming past the boring parts, but if overused, it can zoom past important moments in the story.

Unfortunately, it takes practice to spot the difference between light summarizing and full detail. A common mistake for writers is to summarize when they mean to write an impactful event, and this can destroy the story’s tension and immersion. Unlike many other prose issues, a copy editor can’t fix it, because it requires rewriting those portions of the story.

The first step to fixing it is recognizing the problem. So let’s examine six signs that your prose is summary. Because this issue is much more common in unpublished works, my examples are adapted from client manuscripts with permission.

1. Actions Unfold Faster Than Real Time

I often use the phrase “real time” to distinguish what makes the prose in a scene unique. What is real time? It’s when it takes you five seconds to read a line and five seconds – or less – pass for the characters during that line. If it’s quicker to read the line than it is to realistically reenact the events that happen during it, that means story time is moving faster than reading time. The line is summary.

Obviously, some people read much faster than others, so this is always a rough and subjective measure. But you don’t need to use a stopwatch; you only need to note when the difference is obvious.

Have a look at the excerpt below.

He took a moment to catch his breath until he gathered the strength to walk up the hill. It was a daunting task. He arrived at the top and was astonished by what he found.

Which is faster: Catching your breath or reading that first sentence? Reading the sentence is. And that’s the least summarized portion of the above excerpt. Don’t get me wrong, if your character is walking up a hill, you’ll probably want to fast-forward a touch. But this is a scene where the character has just dodged a fantastical danger and is about to discover something astounding. It’s too important for the whole excerpt to be summarized like this.

I’ve rewritten this segment to demonstrate what it might look like when fleshed out.

Example

He laid back in the grass, listening to his thumping heart slowly return to normal as he caught his breath. His palms stung, and one knee throbbed dully. Finally, he pushed himself to his feet, ignoring all the other cuts and scrapes that flared to life. He had to find out what that thing was.

He carefully walked up the hill, trying to make each footfall quiet. Once he was near the top, he tilted his head to peek through the brush.

My rework slows the narration down by covering the state of the character in more detail, adding a quick thought, and using more description.

Let’s look at another one that’s a little trickier.

Soldiers marched through the streets, and columns of smoke rose overhead. Distant gunfire echoed off buildings. A small crowd of civilians with hastily drawn signs met one patrol head-on. The soldiers struck out with rifle butts and fired into the air. A dozen civilians went down.

Potentially, a dozen people could go down very fast. However, this covers a messy encounter between whole groups of people. Since the soldiers are simply marching at the start of the paragraph, putting the protesters down happens remarkably fast. The protesters would either have to be a few feet away or have to run to meet the soldiers. Then, the soldiers would have to be disciplined enough to act in unison. All of this is pretty unlikely in such a chaotic situation.

Below, I’ve fleshed out these events.

Example

Distant gunfire echoed off buildings as columns of smoke rose overhead. A dozen soldiers emerged onto the lane from a side street, walking two by two as they surveyed the carnage.

A ruckus arose down the block, where a small crowd of civilians held up hastily drawn signs. They pointed to the soldiers, and, after a moment, rushed to plant themselves in the soldiers’ path. An officer fired a warning shot, but it didn’t deter the protesters.

As the soldiers closed in on the civilians, they struck out with their rifle butts. A few civilians crumpled, and then more. The protesters parted, struggling to pull a dozen of their fallen fellows along with them.

Instead of saying “Soldiers marched through the streets,” which feels like a general description of the environment, I had the soldiers take a specific action: arriving on the scene. This makes them feel more concrete and real.

After fleshing it out, the sequence is three paragraphs long. If its purpose is only scene setting, that could be too much. However, the answer isn’t summary. Rather, the description should focus on what’s happening right now. Instead of narrating how the soldiers encounter the protesters, a fight could already be in progress. Then, the paragraph could highlight specific actions by a few soldiers and protesters in the larger fight.

2. Micro Problems Don’t Feel Tense

A good scene usually has small sources of tension that are resolved just a paragraph or two later. This helps readers stay engaged. But tension requires anticipation. In other words, it needs some time. When a scene is rushed, these micro problems are resolved before readers have a chance to feel them out. Add in the great distance summary adds, and tension in the scene falls flat.

Let’s look at an example excerpt.

A patrol of soldiers rounded the corner several blocks ahead. Indira pulled the president into an alley, but the motion was awkward and slow.

A patrol of soldiers that could spot the protagonists is a micro problem that should create tension. Instead, it is resolved before readers can anticipate anything bad happening.

You might also notice that this is obviously not real time. Pulling the president into an alley is supposed to be awkward and slow, but the time it takes is equivalent to reading “Indira pulled the president into an alley.” Indira is quick on her feet!

To show what this could look like, below is the rework I did for my article on bland prose.

Example

Several blocks ahead, a squad of soldiers with green armbands strode onto the street and glanced around. It was one of the general’s patrols; Indira couldn’t let them spot the president. She twisted to shield the president from their gaze and searched for cover. An alley waited twenty paces away. The spattered blood near the opening wasn’t a good sign, but it would have to do.

In my rework, Indira first responds internally to seeing the soldiers, better establishing them as a threat. Then, she takes a temporary measure while she searches for a more permanent solution. That solution isn’t perfect. During all of this, the problem isn’t yet resolved. Even when Indira and the president get to the alley, they might find danger there.

Below is another excerpt that rushes through a moment that could be tense.

Silvia focused on the sounds of the empty town and the chill wind that tore through it. After a minute of stillness, she heard something, a sound so tiny and indescribable that she couldn’t be certain she hadn’t simply subconsciously invented it.

Lerner glanced at her. “You heard that as well?” he asked, which was enough to convince her she hadn’t imagined it.

It took them the better part of an hour to track the noise, but, as they stood outside of a ramshackle barn, it seemed likely they had succeeded.

The protagonists are investigating a spooky ghost town. The beginning paces the scene pretty well, though I don’t recommend the use of “indescribable,” as it simply lowers immersion. But as soon as Lerner acknowledges the noise, the narration summarizes the rest of their exchange and the following search, jumping to when they’ve already found the noise’s source.

Skipping forward doesn’t allow readers to fully anticipate the danger it represents. If the noise slowly grew louder as the protagonists closed in on its location, tension would build, giving the ramshackle barn a grand entrance.

Example

Silvia focused on the sounds of the empty town and the chill wind that tore through it. After a minute of stillness, she heard something, a sound so tiny and indescribable that she couldn’t be certain she hadn’t simply subconsciously invented it.

Lerner glanced at her. “You heard that as well?”

“I think so. Do you know where it’s coming from?”

“Further in.”

Of course it was. Silvia tightened her grip on her gun as they headed toward the center of town. The darkened buildings kept quiet for the next dozen or so steps. Then Silvia and Lerner paused their approach, and it came again. The faintest scrape followed by a tiny metallic chitter. Then silence.

With the extra time, I established that Silvia is afraid, made the location of the noise feel more dangerous, and further described the sound. For a little extra fun, I also specified that the noise is only present when they stop.

3. Description Is Sparse or Absent

Description inherently slows down the pace of prose by adding sensory details. Some writers go too far with this, boring readers with paragraph upon paragraph of description, but it inherently works against summarizing. Good description also increases immersion.

Altogether, while it’s still possible for a writer to have both strong description and a summary problem, sparse description is a warning sign that a scene has been summarized.

Below, the protagonists breeze past a moment in which description is generally called for.

Fenn climbed the wall first. He stopped once he was able to peek his green eyes over the wall. “I don’t see any guards on duty. A butler hurried by a window, but nothing to worry about.”

Mara started climbing next, but Verdil shot past her with speed and grace. Kit was the last to reach the top. Verdil and Kit waited on top of the wall with their bows ready while Mara and Fenn jumped down.

Fenn took the lead while Mara followed three steps behind.

The first paragraph above isn’t rushing too much. Fenn climbs the wall in a brief sentence, but summary is appropriate there. Then he stops and peeks, which wouldn’t take him very long. Finally, he speaks a line of dialogue with double quotes – which is always real time.

However, as the passage continues, description is notably absent. The protagonists have just climbed over a wall; what’s on the other side? The view could be described when the viewpoint character reaches the top or when they land on the other side. As written, it’s difficult to even tell who the viewpoint character is. There is no internalizing or description from their perspective.

Based on this excerpt, you might guess Fenn is the viewpoint character. It’s actually Mara. Below, I’ve fleshed out the sequence from her perspective.

Example

Fenn climbed the wall first. He stopped near the top, peeking over. “I don’t see any guards on duty. A butler hurried by a window, but nothing to worry about.”

Mara found a handhold on the wall to climb up after him, but Verdil shot past her with speed and grace. Fine, Mara could accept third place. The mossy stones were a little slick, but she got to the top without much effort.

Past the wall, neat hedges covered the grounds in intricate patterns. The manor sat at the center, boasting an indecent number of marble columns and lofty windows.

I modified the first paragraph slightly just to eliminate the sense that Fenn might be narrating that passage. By simply saying he stopped and peeked, it comes off more like he’s being viewed from the outside.

Then, the focus changes to Mara. I fleshed out her actions a little by letting her grab her first handhold. Narrating each handhold would be beyond tedious, but I added a brief description of the stones to add immersion to her summarized climb. Once Mara got to the top, I described the view past the wall.

I also added a brief thought from Mara. Internalizing can also be missing in summarized passages, but more care needs to be used when putting it in. It’s a good way to set the tone and express character emotion, but it’s not as immersive as description.

Let’s look at another one. This is in a modern-day, real-world setting, and the protagonist has just discovered a crashed alien spaceship.

He mustered up the strength and headed for the entrance. Immediately upon entering, he noticed the inside didn’t strike him as all alien and strange.

Immediately after this passage, the writer starts to describe the interior of the spaceship. But this spaceship is so remarkable to him that this is too late. What is the door or doorway like? What is it like to cross the threshold? Even the speed with which this character gets to the entrance feels fast, considering how important this moment would be.

Example

He took a breath and stepped toward what had to be the entrance. It was round and flush with the curving hull of the ship, but he could spot the circular seam. In the center was a dark rectangle. A handle? He brushed a finger on it and the door evaporated, making him jump.

I have an article on when description is necessary.

4. Dialogue Isn’t in Double Quotes

As I mentioned above, dialogue in double quotes is always in real time. That doesn’t stop writers from putting a brief line of dialogue in the middle of a paragraph of summary, but there’s no question about the text within the quotes. Conversely, whenever dialogue is paraphrased instead of written out word for word, it is in summary.

In the excerpt below, a protagonist faces off against some zombies for the first time.

They slowly lumbered toward Taisa at a snail’s pace. She raised her gun and ordered them to stay back, but they showed no sign of comprehension. Taisa shot into the ground between them, but still they came. The second bullet hit the lead one in the thigh. It didn’t scream. It didn’t stumble. It showed no sign of pain. It just kept lumbering toward her.

Taisa orders the zombies to stay back, but it isn’t written out, indicating summary. For the first half of the paragraph, the story is also clearly moving faster than real time. That’s because Taisa needs a few moments to observe that the zombies aren’t responding to her threats.

However, that improves as the paragraph continues. The second bullet hits a specific zombie, and the narration takes much longer in relating that the shot has no effect. It’s still not immersive, because it relates what the zombie isn’t showing instead of what it does show, but I wouldn’t say that the second half is over-summarized.

Because this excerpt involves a tense interaction between Taisa and the zombies, this is a good opportunity to space the narration out a bit with paragraph breaks. That slows the narration down a touch, though you don’t want to overuse it. More description also helps by providing visceral details and drawing the moment out.

Example

The figures slowly lumbered toward Taisa. As they cleared the fog, the blood covering them became clearer, as did their gaping wounds. It wasn’t the blood of a recent enemy; these people were injured. That’s why they moved so slowly. But still they came.

Taisa raised her gun. “Stay back. I don’t want to hurt you!”

Nothing changed in their vacant eyes and slack jaws as they shuffled forward. She could see the whites of their eyes now, though they were actually red, yellow, or dark sockets.

“I will shoot you.” Taisa fired a bullet into the ground.

Let’s look at another one. It starts off in real time but then transitions to summary.

“May I join you?” John asked.

I hadn’t known he was interested in such things. “Of course.”

John drifted to the floor and leaned against a shelf of cleaning supplies. After Heather said a prayer and I read from the Book of Job, John asked his questions. What was it like for the recon team when they found themselves trapped in the crumbling building? When they arrived in Heaven, were they happy among the angels and saints, or did they despair over their separation from the living part of humanity?

Some of the above should stay in summary. The Bible reading would be impractical to include word for word. The initial prayer could be written out if it’s short. If it’s not, the first few words could be written out before it transitions to summary. However, John’s questions are the emotionally impactful part of the scene. They shouldn’t be glossed over with summary.

I’ve revised it to transition into summary and back out again.

Example

“May I join you?” John asked.

I hadn’t known he was interested in such things. “Of course.”

John drifted to the floor and leaned against a shelf of cleaning supplies. Once we were all settled, Heather and I began our prayers.

“Dear Lord,” I said, “Thank you for giving us hope in this time of trial…” I continued, thanking the Lord for everything I could think of. It helped me focus on the positive, on what we still had.

Heather said her prayer next, focused on everyone else’s safety, as always. Then I read several passages from the Book of Job.

Through the prayers and the reading, John was quiet. After it was all done, he finally spoke. “What do you think it was like for the recon team? When they knew they wouldn’t make it, I mean.”

While I kept the summary, I still expanded it so it’s less summarized than before. This makes the transition easier and better maintains the immersion of the scene.

5. Critical Actions Are Grouped Together

It takes some practice to get the right balance when it comes to narrating actions. You don’t need to detail the exact mechanics of how your protagonist bends their knee, lifts their leg, and tilts their ankle to take a single step forward. However, when a character is in a high-tension sequence where every movement could make a difference, you don’t want to zoom past those movements by summarizing too much.

This is particularly likely in fight scenes or other action sequences. Writers often extend the canonical length of the fight by summarizing a bunch of sword slashes or punches at once. But usually, there’s no reason this is needed, and it reduces immersion. Instead, depict a shorter fight where every second is riveting. You should only need summary if you are depicting something like a battle or another story situation where it’s unrealistic for the action to be over so fast. Even then, pick which moments of the battle are critical, and avoid summary during those moments.

Let’s look at a piece of an excerpt I used for my makeover article on action and immediacy. In it, a fantasy party is fighting a horde of creatures called strikers. Notice that it’s narrating multiple attacks at once.

Launis moved among the abhorrent creatures, slashing quickly with her broadsword. Onara fired arrows at the strikers as they drew close.

This is a big fight against multiple creatures, so it’s understandable that the writer felt the need to summarize. Even so, it wasn’t necessary. Below, I’ve expanded this section to make the slashing and loosing of arrows into individual actions.

Example

Launis raised her broadsword and rushed forward to meet the abhorrent creatures. The first swiped at her with its long claws, but she ducked and spun, slicing through its midsection. Another leapt for her, and she cleaved it in midair. As she did, a third striker rushed at her back and then toppled over, Onara’s arrow poking through its neck.

Actions still unfold at a pretty fast clip but slow enough to be real time. A fight like this would happen fast.

Let’s look at another excerpt, but a chase this time. It’s actually from I Am Number Four.

[The boy] pushes himself harder, sprinting at a speed somewhere around sixty miles per hour. He dodges trees, rips through snarled vines, and leaps small streams with a single step.

This doesn’t mention any specific actions, so it’s clearly summary. Since it features a chase, should it narrate every footfall instead? No, that would be a bit much. Individual steps are monotonous and not particularly critical to the boy’s success in escaping his pursuer. However, what if he fails to dodge a tree or rip through a vine? He could easily lose enough time to get caught.

Given that, the narration should focus on the specific actions he takes to get past obstacles, letting the basic mechanics of running fade into the background.

Example

The boy pushes himself harder, and the forest blurs. Fallen trees block his way, so he jumps over a log, only to dive under low branches. He runs into a draping vine; it briefly ensnares his midriff before he manages to break free. The ground gives way to a creek, but he leaps over it with a single step.

All of these obstacles go by too fast to feel tense on their own, but now readers can really watch the action as it unfolds. With some micro problems added to the scene, this chase could be as riveting as any fight.

6. Actions Are Vague or Abstract

Another hallmark of summary is when important actions or changes are told rather than shown. In other words, the narrator declares that something has happened but doesn’t offer any sensory detail to illustrate it. In many cases, the viewpoint character has come to some conclusion, but readers don’t know how they were able to make that judgment.

Since that explanation is itself very abstract, let’s look at several different excerpts.

She ran as fast as her feet would carry her, but she could hear the heavy footfalls of the monster behind her, and they were growing closer.

Above, readers are told footfalls are growing closer, but how does the viewpoint character know that? Are they getting louder? Since this creature is very big, is the ground shaking harder? This could be replaced with: “She could feel the ground shake now. The troll was closing in.”

He yanked the weapon out, and the fiendish creature fell, only to be replaced by several more of its kind.

The creature is replaced by several more. How? Did they step in from behind it? Did they emerge from the soil? Drop down from the sky? Instead, this might be: “Five more emerged from the brush, tromping on their fellow’s wriggling corpse.”

She noticed with growing dread that there were far more of the creatures than the five they’d seen before. The other rangers noticed too, and they faltered briefly.

What does faltering look like? Did they pause to look toward the horde of creatures? Did they take a step back in retreat? Instead, consider: “With her gaze locked on the approaching strikers, Launis didn’t raise her sword in time.”

To a large degree, showing instead of telling is about getting specific. Readers would rather observe specifics and come to their own conclusions than hear those conclusions secondhand.


Even if your mind draws a blank when it comes time to fill in detail, don’t despair. You can absolutely learn to fill out your prose. If you’re having trouble, try reviewing similar scenes in your favorite books, practicing your description, imagining yourself in your character’s shoes, or even physically acting out the scene. In the end, however, narrating in detail is something you get used to with time.

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