24 Examples of Narrative Summary

In the previous chapter, we discovered that narrative summary has an additional element beyond pure description: presenting characters’ thoughts. We also showed how these thoughts should reflect what a character is thinking about the current situation, not as a tool to pass along backstory, plot or, God forbid, emotion.

Below are two real-life examples of narrative summary. They are both taken from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The aim of these examples is to demonstrate how narrative summary can be used to enhance your writing without slipping into TELLING.

When examining these examples, please hold in your mind the following:

Watch for TELLING.
Notice that the narrative summary is cemented in the present.
Recognize they are a character’s thoughts.

Example One

This is taken from the first half of the book, where the old man and the boy prepare for the fishing trip.

“What do you have to eat?” the boy asked.

“A pot of yellow rice with fish. Do you want some?”

“No. I will eat at home. Do you want me to make the fire?”

“No. I will make it later on. Or I may eat the rice cold.”

“May I take the cast net?”

“Of course.”

There was no cast net and the boy remembered when they had sold it. But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too.

“Eighty-five is a lucky number,” the old man said. “How would you like to see me bring one in that dressed out over a thousand pounds?”

“I’ll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the doorway?”

“Yes. I have yesterday’s paper and I will read the baseball.”

The bolded section of narrative summary above has the narrator showing the reader that the boy remembered the pot had been sold. The importance here is that it adds a new level of context to the exchange of dialogue.

By showing the reader that the boy knows the pot has been sold, the reader can see that the boy’s response – “No. I will eat at home. Do you want me to make the fire?” – has a new meaning. The boy has chosen to interact in a way that protects the old man’s feelings. The narrator is not TELLING us that the boy is kind; he is SHOWING us, by adding context to the words. This is very powerful and should stir a deeper emotion in the reader.

The next section of this excerpt – “But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too” – is the narrator’s voice. Remember the omniscient narrator knows everything. Yet rather than the narrator TELL us that the boy is kind, the narrator reinforces the point, by adding more context.

The lesson here is that the narrative summary never TELLS us the boy is kind; instead, it SHOWS us.

Example Two

This section comes later in the story. The old man is alone on the boat and has managed to catch the “great fish.” He has been propped in his boat for many hours, unable to move, holding the line as the fish tries to escape.

The sun was hot now although the breeze was rising gently.

“I had better re-bait that little line out over the stern,” he said. “If the fish decides to stay another night I will need to eat again and the water is low in the bottle. I don’t think I can get anything but a dolphin here. But if I eat him fresh enough he won’t be bad. I wish a flying fish would come on board tonight. But I have no light to attract them. A flying fish is excellent to eat raw and I would not have to cut him up. I must save all my strength now. Christ, I did not know he was so big.”

“I’ll kill him though,” he said. “In all his greatness and his glory.”

Although it is unjust, he thought. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.

“I told the boy I was a strange old man,” he said.

“Now is when I must prove it.”

The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.

The first thing to notice is that Hemingway has the old man talking aloud, perhaps to himself, perhaps to the fish, perhaps to God. The beauty of this is that it allows the author to keep the story moving without resorting, exclusively, to narrative summary.

The first section of narrative summary is clearly a thought: “Although it is unjust, he thought”. Yet the thought adds context to the dialogue. The book’s major theme is the fight between man and nature, and this simple thought pushes this into the reader’s mind. It acts as a contrast between the action and a meaning for the action. Hemingway is using the action and the narrative summary to force the reader to think differently about man’s role in the world.

The second section sees the narrator passing a judgment on the old man. The narrator is telling the reader something about the old man. It adds context to the character’s action but forces the reader to think more deeply about the action. The old man says aloud, “I told the boy I was a strange old man,” but it is the narrator who forces the reader to look more deeply into this statement. How is the old man strange? How has he proved it in the past? Why keep on proving it?

In these two examples, it can be seen that by both using a character’s thoughts and the direct narrative voice, an author can insert additional context to a character’s words and actions.

On the most basic level the job of narrative summary is to describe the actions of characters. However, there is a second more valuable and more powerful role. This is to force the reader into a place where the reader adds more depth and meaning to these words and actions. If done correctly, this will turn any good novel into a great novel and a work of art.

As one of the great ironies of novel-writing, this one simple strategy is the hardest of all. Authors, such as Hemingway, dedicated their whole careers to trying to make it work. For most authors, this is the most worthy and valuable of journeys.


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