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Monday, September 12, 2022

Managing Time in Summaries


The term "setting" refers to both time and place. Though we often focus on the place part when we talk about writing, the time part is equally important. When writing novels or short stories, we need to properly navigate the reader through the passage of time, so they never feel disoriented, and this is true for summaries just as it is for scenes.

Recently, I was asked to comment on how to handle time in summaries, but my answer was long enough to merit a whole blog post, so, here we are. And while we can certainly talk about the past and future in summaries, for this, I will be focused (mostly) on linear time.


Using Summary Within Scene to Navigate Time

First, it's worth mentioning, that summary can be used within a scene to indicate time has passed. For example, I may have a scene where a group of characters is making a pizza to eat. . . .

Don finished putting the toppings on the pizza and then put it in the oven. For thirty minutes everyone chatted about their travels. When the timer went off, he pulled the pizza back out. His mouth watered at the sight of melting cheese and the saucy aroma. "It's done," he announched.

The sentence "For thirty minutes everyone chatted about their travels" is summary that indicates time passing. 


Managing Time Between Scene Breaks

Summary is used to condense time and compress events. We often use bits of summary within our scenes, and sometimes, whole paragraphs within. Other times we use summaries to link scenes together. But sometimes you don't even need much or any of that. You can simply indicate how much time has passed in the beginning of the next scene by mentioning a time of day or a changing detail (such as a loved one coming home from work).

Sometimes all you need is one short phrase or sentence. 

. . . After letting out a big yawn, George drifted off to sleep.

***

Three weeks later, Margaret told George that their boss needed to meet with him. George quickly stood up from his desk, heart racing. Maybe this was it--he was getting promoted. George straightened his tie and popped in a breath mint. He headed to Ryan's office.


In this example, saying "Three weeks later" is enough.

In her book, Showing & Telling, award-winning writer Laurie Alberts calls such indications "time tags." You help the reader navigate the passage of time by simply "tagging" it.

You can do this with essentially any amount of passing time:

Months later . . . 

The next summer . . . 

Hours after Ms. Winfry assigned the homework . . . 

At three o'clock on Thursday . . . 

By nightfall . . . 


And you can sometimes be a little more creative and indirect:

Once the snow melted and the weather promised spring . . . 

The next thing he heard was his neighbor's rooster crowing at the crack of dawn. . . . 

When she arrived at her destination . . . 

A week before school started . . .

Once we sat for dinner . . .

By the time her roots had grown out . . . 


Now, in some situations, you may need to fill the reader in a little bit on what happened between the scenes, in the second scene. Just slip in some summary at an appropriate time (and make sure it's clear when X happened). For example: 


. . . After letting out a big yawn, George drifted off to sleep.

***

Three weeks later, Margaret told George that their boss needed to meet with him. George quickly stood up from his desk, heart racing. Maybe this was it--he was getting promoted. George straightened his tie and popped in a breath mint. He headed to Ryan's office.

Every day since the company had started running their new ad, people had complimented George on his work. Surely Ryan felt the same way. He reached the door, steadied his breath, and knocked.


Worth noting, is that often when you fill in this way, you need to change the tense. Because this is written in past tense, we then move into past perfect tense ("people had complimented"), but that could be a whole other post. It's also worth pointing out we can use summary to talk about the past (and past vs. future could also be another post).


Managing Time in a Passage of Summary

Now sometimes, though, you want or need to use a whole passage of summary--to link scenes, or even within a scene. Not everything that happens to characters is important enough to be a scene. Sometimes the audience just needs to know the fact something happened, and doesn't need to experience it happening. You can learn more about scenes and summaries in my article, "Scene vs. Summary & When to Use Which."

When you do this, make sure to use time tags to indicate time is passing--again, this can be very direct (ex. "Over the next month, Tiffany struggled with insomnia") or very indirect (ex. "When the roots of her hair grew out . . . )

In many summaries, it's helpful to use a time tag first (or at least early on), and then summarize what happened during that time. 

Over the next month, Tiffany struggled with insomnia. She used every remedy she could think of: long salt baths with lavender essential oil, calming herbs sipped an hour before she retired, guided meditations that promised she'd be out within twenty minutes, and also melatonin.

Nothing worked.

She often found herself out of bed at 2 a.m., watching Family Feud reruns. 


If the passage needed to be longer, from here, I could go into more detail about this experience, talk about what else happened during this time, or talk about the next segment of time.

For example:

. . . Nothing worked.

She often found herself out of bed at 2 a.m., watching Family Feud reruns. 

To make matters worse, summer was nearing, and each day was longer. She could already hear the neighbors kicking their bratty kids outdoors and starting up their barbecues. Her husband, Todd, often tried to coax her outdoors. "They say sun exposure can help with sleep," he tempted one morning while sipping his black coffee. With his latest project complete, his pressure from work was off. Tiffany hadn't seen him this cheerful since last summer.

While she was huddled up staring at a computer screen on Saturdays, Todd was singing outside the window as he pulled weeds. He never understood her. . . . 

 

Avoid "Reports" and "Lists" by Focusing on a Topic or Implementing Structure

Perhaps one of the tricky things with summaries (other than just learning how to write great telling), is the transitions. What we usually want to avoid are passages that sound like a report or a list: 

By nightfall, Judy finished cleaning the house. The next day she went out to lunch with Beth, and they exchanged the latest gossip. Then she went to a pilates class. It felt good to get out of the house. She decided to visit her cousin, who had just adopted a dog. After playing tug-o-war with it, she went to the bookstore. Because she wasn't looking for anything in particular, she wandered every section. Eventually, she decided to host a movie night. 


Yikes! I'm getting bored just writing that. 

Sure, this has time tags and uses summary to guide the reader through what happened, but it's not fun to read, and it feels like we are flying from one thing to another. (Plus, if I read this from a writer, I would also question if all the information was actually important for the audience to know). 

Perhaps some of the best advice on summaries I have (other than what you may find here and here), is to pick a topic or topics you can use as a sort of a "theme" for the passage, and use that to bind everything together. The topic can be almost anything that you can make relevant--the weather and changing seasons, food, a mood or emotion, a characteristic, a relationship, a mini-goal . . . 

Watch how the above summary is improved by employing this technique:

Judy determined to do anything and everything that could distract her from what had happened. She started with cleaning the house, but was unfortunately finished by nightfall, so she determined to go to lunch with Beth the next day, where they exchanged the latest gossip. Talking about everyone else's problems was far and away better than talking about her own. But lunch was over too soon, and Judy still had a whole afternoon. 

Luckily she remembered her forgotten gym membership and zipped over to a pilates class. Wasn't physical exercise supposed to help you feel good? Not wanting to return home to an empty house with no dishes to clean, she stopped to visit her cousin Mary, who had just adopted a dog. What could be a better distraction than playing tug-o-war with 25 pounds of fur? And it was all Mary wanted to talk about. She didn't even ask how Judy was doing, thankfully. 

With the inevitable prospect of returning home looming nearer, she figured she could distract herself with a good book, and perused the shelves of a nearby Barnes & Noble. But with no title in mind, she wandered through every section, looking at everything and nothing at the same time. Maybe a book wouldn't be a strong enough distraction. . . . Today she had liked being around people. Maybe . . . she could host a movie night.

The following evening her home was packed with friends, relatives, and the buttery scent of movie popcorn. . . . [scene start]


This probably isn't the most amazing summary you've ever read, but hopefully you can see how picking a topic to bind all the events together, helps the passage read much more smoothly. While this covers a more or less 24-hour (though jampacked) period, you can do the same thing with a longer passage of time.

You could also use more than one topic and weave them through the summary, or move from one to another.

Another related technique is to create a sort of rising action and climax within the summary. We usually think of structure as being related to scenes or the narrative arc, but you can create a similar effect in summary.

This is just a short excerpt, but in the following example (which I admit I've used before, but it's easier to grab than retype something new) from Ender's Game, a sort of rising action is implied when it comes to Ender's feelings (more or less).

Mother came home and commiserated with Ender about the monitor. Father came home and kept saying it was such a wonderful surprise, they had such fantastic children that the government told them to have three, and now the government didn't want to take any of them after all, so here they were with three, they still had a Third . . . until Ender wanted to scream at him, I know I'm a Third, I know it, if you want I'll go away so you don't have to be embarrassed in front of everybody.

- Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

With summary, you can actually use a lot of the same basic structural elements as you use in scene--the difference is only that it is summarized. So feel free to escalate a problem until it hits a peak.


For Long Passages, Use Scene within Summary

With longer passages of summary, particularly over longer periods of time, it's usually a good idea to put in lines of scene throughout the passage. I used a touch of this in an earlier example, but I could have developed it a bit more:

Over the next month, Tiffany struggled with insomnia. She used every remedy she could think of: long salt baths with lavender essential oil, calming herbs sipped an hour before she retired, guided meditations that promised she'd be out within twenty minutes, and also melatonin.

Nothing worked.

She often found herself out of bed at 2 a.m., watching Family Feud reruns. 

To make matters worse, summer was nearing, and each day was longer. She could already hear the neighbors kicking their bratty kids outdoors and starting up their barbecues. Her husband, Todd, often tried to coax her outdoors. "They say sun exposure can help with sleep," he tempted one morning while sipping his black coffee in the kitchen. With his latest project complete, his pressure from work was off. Tiffany hadn't seen him this cheerful since last summer. "Maybe we can go on a little hike."

"A hike?" Tiffany said, rubbing her aching eyes before grabbing the melatonin out of the cupboard. "I barely have enough energy to make breakfast!"

She unscrewed the lid.

"Woah, hon!" Todd said. "Have you been taking that during the day? Melatonin is supposed to regulate your circadian rhythm--no wonder you can't sleep at night."

"What?" Tiffany lowered the bottle. Was this the reason behind her sleep issues?

She thought back. No, she'd been having sleep issues before ever taking it.

But it certainly wasn't helping to take it during the day.

"I just feel like resting," she said, putting the bottle back.

Soon she was huddled up, staring at the computer screen scrolling past post after post, then video after video, of friends, brands, influencers . . . another week went by, and then another. Each Saturday spent in front of a screen.

Summer had just hit when she received a letter from her estranged father. Hands shaking and vision sleep-blurry, Tiffany carefully opened the beatup envelope in her entryway. He'd written on simple, lined paper. She caught the scent of cigarette smoke.

Tiffany, 

I know you didn't want me to speak to you again. . . . which is why I'm writing. I wouldn't bother you, except it's important. I lost my job and am--

She crumpled it up. 

Money. That's all he wanted.

She sighed onto the couch. 

It seemed as if she lay there until the summer solstice. 


Again, probably not the best summary you've ever read, but it should prove the point. This passage includes little bits of scene as it navigates the reader through time.


Handling Recurring Events

In some passages, you will be working with recurring events. Some of the examples I have in here do that. In such cases, you may need to use conditional verbs, pluralize some words, and indicate repetition. 

On nights she couldn't sleep, she would get up and watch Family Feud reruns, and in the mornings, her eyes would be bloodshot.


But it sorta depends on what the event is and how you write it. You don't necessarily have to do this to get it across. Here is an example I've used elsewhere, from Jane Eyre, that talks about a recurrence (also, notice how it centers on a topic).

John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy to me. He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh in my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions; the servants did not like to offend their young master by taking my part against him, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject: she never saw him strike or heard him abuse me, though he did both now and then in her very presence, more frequently, however, behind her back. 

- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


There is still plenty more that could be said about working with time in stories, but I hope this helps when it comes to working with time in summaries in particular.


Referenced Resources & Related Posts

Scene vs. Summary & When to Use Which 

10 Cheats to "Tell" Well

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Flashbacks!"


Read more Resources on the Passage of Time

5 Ways To Handle The Passing Of Time In Your Story by Writer's Edit

A Question of When: Indicating Time Passage in Our Stories by Writers Helping Writers


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