Writing interesting summary descriptions; using a thesaurus to find the right word
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: October 28, 2008
|How can I make summary interesting? |
In fiction, scene should do the heavy lifting, but not everything is meant to unfold in detail. Summary is often used to fill in bits of a character's background, convey information, transition between scenes, or zoom through time. Use it when necessary, and dole it out in small doses.
When you summarize, you compress time. But you don't have to lose flavor and precision in the process. Vivid summary relies on specificity. In Jhumpa Lahiri's short story "The Third and Final Continent," the narrator, who is living in Boston, travels back to Calcutta for his arranged marriage. He brings his wife, Mala, to Boston with him and the first week is an adjustment:
I still was not used to coming home to an apartment that smelled of
steamed rice, and finding that the basin in the bathroom was always
wiped clean, our two toothbrushes lying side by side, a cake of Pears
soap from India resting in the soap dish.
Summary can cover a longer span of time. Still, specificity keeps it engaging. In Anthony Doerr's short story "For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story," Griselda runs away with a metal eater she meets at a carnival, leaving her mother and her sister, Rosemary, behind. For years Rosemary's life plods along:
She gained weight; her feet wore down the soles of shoes. She took
meticulous grocery lists to Shaver's, balanced her checkbook with a
nubbed pencil, fed soup to her crumbling mother. She did not bother
to clean the house or buy makeup. The curtains went gray; Twinkie
wrappers sprouted from couch cushions; ants roved in the metal
mouths of soda cans stuck to windowsills.
An interesting voice can also add to the intrigue of summary. In Russell Banks' novel Rule of the Bone, the fourteen-year-old narrator leaves home and starts dealing drugs. Months pass like this:
In the beginning and all winter I was only dealing small-load
weed to the bikers which was cool because A, lots of kids in
Au Sable were dealing then mostly in school where I never went
near anyhow but everywhere around town too so we were like
a swarm of flies and it was low-risk to be one of them what with
so few swatters. And B, it didn't feel like a wrong thing to be
doing even though it was illegal.
When a moment doesn't need the treatment of a fully-fleshed out scene, don't hesitate to move things along with summary. Keep it engaging and specific, and the reader won't even notice the transition.
Note: Both Jhumpa Lahiri's short story "The Third and Final Continent," and Anthony Doerr's short story "For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story," can be found in Fiction Gallery, a anthology of exceptional short stories selected by the Gotham Writers Workshop faculty.
I like to use the thesaurus, but my critique group says I should put it away. Isn't the point of creative writing to find the perfect word?
Indeed, good writers continually search for le mot juste, the most precise word or expression. A thesaurus can be helpful in this quest. I often find one entry leads me to another, which has me flipping pages to a third—all in an effort to find the word that has just the right sound and connotation. Our words carry baggage, after all. Modest and mousy, for example, have a similar dictionary definition, but their connotations—the emotional associations with the words—are quite different. The librarian who hides in the stacks when the library gets busy might be mousy, while the artist who downplays her recent award and focuses on her next project might be modest.
But be careful. Some writers are led astray during this search. Avoid the temptation to use words simply to display your smarts. No one wants to read through a tangle of fancy words:
The day after the salacious rumor permeated the office, Amber awoke
and traversed the miniscule park opposite her house.
Even if you don't need to reach for the dictionary to decode, it sounds awkward. Evocative words can be exciting, but remember that they need to serve a purpose.
Know your options and choose wisely, No one word will be right for every situation. Take voice into consideration, as well as context. An employee appreciation event put on by a struggling non-profit with no extra money won't be a "soiree," no matter how much you like the word. But it could be a "get-together" or a "reception." A party at a barn might be a "celebration," but if it's lively with a bluegrass band and dancing, it might just be a "shindig."
Finding that perfect word is a quest worth undertaking. It can mean the difference between a so-so sentence and one that settles in the reader's gut.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Posted Oct. 28, 2008