Narrative Summary. Every work of fiction has it, but what exactly is it? Narrative summary, essentially, is a long passage of description where no action or dialogue occurs in the real time. This happens when the author tells the reader things that they could otherwise infer from dialogue or real-time action. This concept is best illustrated through examples.
Johnny was angry. His mother had scolded him for once again eating one of the cookies from the jar without asking permission. He sat down on his bed huffily and looked over at his brother, Dave, with whom he shared a room. Dave never got in trouble like he did. Mother just liked him best.
This is narrative summary. I, the author, told you that Johnny was angry and summarized what happened by simply telling you, the reader, that Johnny had eaten out of the cookie jar. I also simply told you about the resentment Johnny feels towards his older brother and that he thinks his mother likes Dave best between the two of them. It is a well-written, concise description of what transpired, but it is telling, not showing. Let’s look at the scene again, but with me, the author, showing you what Johnny is feeling, not telling you.
Johnny slammed the door shut and stomped over to his bed. He flopped down onto his stomach and covered his head with the pillow. His brother, Dave, glanced over at him from where he worked at the desk.
“What’s up, little man?” Dave asked.
“Nothing!” The pillow muffled Johnny’s voice so Dave reached over and pulled it away. Johnny glared at him.
“Come on, Johnny. What’s going on? Did you get into the cookie jar again?”
Johnny sniffed. “Maybe.”
“Mom told you what would happen if you did it again the last time she caught you. Now you’re stuck in here with me, your big, boring brother, Dave.”
“Mom never gets mad at you! It’s not fair!”
“She did when I was your age, but I learned not to take things without asking. You can learn too. It’ll be ok. Come on now, give me a smile.” Dave reached out and tickled him. Johnny tried to squirm away, but Dave pinned him against the wall and tickled until Johnny cried with laughter. Dave smiled and Johnny threw his arms around his brother’s neck.
“I love you, Dave.”
“I love you too, Johnny.”
This is showing. Same event, but a different way of writing it. One is much more engaging than the other and reveals deeper emotions and relationships than the first. Compare the two for yourselves and post comments below about what you learned from the scene (showing) that you did not learn from the narrative summary (telling). I’ll post my observations tomorrow as a comment to this post before adding Part 2 of “Show vs. Tell.”
*see “Self Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print – 2nd Edition” by Renni Browne and Dave King for further illustrations