We have covered how to create summary details: create a description rich with sensory details, insert a key word or phrase that can trigger the memories of that rich description, then refer back to the rich description using the same word or phrase.
We have not covered how to write a summary, that is, how to literally summarize events, or why or when to do so.
When you’re reading, you may not even notice when the story does this, or you may not realize what the story is doing when it does this.
Let’s go back to my favorite example, The Princess Bride, specifically the movie version.
At the beginning of the story, the Grandfather character gives the Grandson a summary of the book that he’s about to read to him. Here’s how it goes:
Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandfather: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles!
Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.
Grandfather: [sarcastically] Oh, well, thank you. That’s very kind of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.
The summary doesn’t really give anything in the book away—and it certainly doesn’t have a lot of sensory details—but it does set the Grandson’s and viewers’ expectations.
Later, the Grandfather interrupts the story to assure the Grandson that Princess Buttercup is more or less safe:
Grandfather: She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.
Grandfather: The eel doesn’t get her. I’m explaining to you because you look nervous.
Grandson: I wasn’t nervous. Maybe I was a little bit concerned, but that’s not the same thing.
In those two examples, the Grandfather summarized the events that were about to happen.
Summaries can also sum up events that have already happened:
Count Rugen: Your princess is quite a winning creature. A trifle simple, perhaps. Her appeal is undeniable.
Prince Humperdinck: I know, the people are quite taken with her. It’s odd, but when I hired Vizzini to have her murdered on our engagement day, I thought that was clever. But it’s going to be so much more moving when I strangle her on our wedding night. Once Guilder is blamed, the nation will truly be outraged. They’ll demand we go to war.
Count Rugen: [snickers, then examines a huge tree] Now where is that secret knot? It’s impossible to find…
[he finds it and the tree opens to reveal a hidden passage]
Count Rugen: Ah. Are you coming down into the pit? Westley’s got his strength back. I’m starting him on the machine tonight.
Prince Humperdinck: [sincerely] Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.
Count Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.
In this example, there are several individual summaries:
- “Your princess is quite a winning creature. A trifle simple, perhaps. Her appeal is undeniable.” “I know, the people are quite taken with her.”—This summarizes the character of Princess Buttercup, from the bad guys’ perspective.
- “It’s odd, but when I hired Vizzini to have her mudered on our engagement day, I thought that was clever.”—This summarizes earlier events of the story.
- “But it’s going to be so much more moving when I strangle her on our wedding night. Once Guilder is blamed, the nation will truly be outraged. They’ll demand we go to war.”—This summarizes the bad guys’ plan.
- “Westley’s got his strength back. I’m starting him on the machine tonight.”—This summarizes the current status of Westley’s plotline, plus the events that will immediately follow.
- “I’ve got my country’s 500thanniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.”—This summarizes the bad guys’ larger plans.
If you take a look at a list of memorable quotes from The Princess Bride, you will notice that many of them contain elements of summary.
What are the elements of summary? We already covered the main one: create a detailed description, add a key word or phrase that can trigger a memory of the description, then refer back to that key word or phrase.
When a summary looks back to past events, it can summarize more than just a detailed sensory description, but other elements as well:
- Current status of something
We covered “chunking” earlier, where larger pieces of information are grouped together for easier recall. Part of the process of chunking is to recall the information multiple times after the initial period of learning. Doing this convinces your brain (somehow!) that the information will also be needed later again, and it should probably store that information rather than forget it.
As long as a summary of past events points toward characters, opinions, events, and statuses that have been invested with verisimilitude, including opinion and emotion, and as long as the summary itself is rich with an opinion that we trust, the summary will be memorable.
Once again, note that many of the memorable lines of The Princess Bride are summaries! It is not a waste of time to sum up prior events, as long as the summary is innately interesting due to use of emotion and opinion.
Having a reason for a character in the story to give the summary also enriches the memorability of the summary.
- Two lovers in a romance who finally overcome their problems in getting together have a moment where they tell each other the misconceptions that once kept them apart.
- A detective who summarizes the assumptions and facts of the case to settle any objections before giving a conclusion.
- A Western where the grateful town members memorialize the dead and try to thank the living heroes before they ride off into the sunset.
- A thriller where one character vents about all the problem they face in overcoming the ticking time bomb, concluding with, “What will we do now?”
Again, the key words and phrases used in the summary must have detailed descriptions attached to them, with sensory details, rich opinions and emotions, and fully realized scenes (not summaries!). Don’t point a summary at a bunch of other summary details; it will feel pretty flat.
(Next time: Foreshadowing!)