Summary Masquerading as Description


Brenda Ueland said once about her writing, “For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting.” That changed after approaching writing in a “careless and reckless” way which brought Ueland to what she called writing with “microscopic truthfulness.” The discovery of the “living, true, touching, remarkable,” writing came after much dull stuff. For me, the “how” of the above statements was still missing until much soul-searching and re-writing (sometimes not only second drafts but hundredth drafts). What I found in what Anne Lamott calls the “down-draft” or the “shitty first draft” is that we leave ourselves markers and they’re cleverly disguised as descriptive writing.

       What I mean is this: I might miss a scene that blocks the reader from entering it because it seemed like I used image and description, when in fact, I just told the reader without knowing it and the whole passage was actually summary. For example, the passage:

“I would sit with my best friend at poolside, reading a New Yorker, watching the afternoon reflecting against a wide Colorado sky.”

Maybe parts of it are recoup-able? The changed passage turned out to be a page and a half of the actual meeting of my friend, describing her, describing her apartment building, the pool, then the moment at which I put down my New Yorker, and sang a song to the radio. Then I describe a bee in the pool and open up the meaning behind the scene, that basically we don’t have any more than this physical world and can only guess at the afterlife.

I learned to comb through my manuscript to look for the breadcrumbs I’d left for myself. When I came across an “I’d” or “I used to” or “We’d” then I looked for the summary of a scene. Did the scene need to exist or could I cut it? If it needed to exist, then I’d write out the physicality of it.

Here are some notable “physicalities.”


From Peter Schneider’s Eduard’s Homecoming:

“Having climbed a flight of stairs flanked by green walls, he opened a steel door beyond which everything had been suddenly, freshly whitewashed, and he now recalled the feeling that had overwhelmed him on going to the window. The newly painted and carpeted room might have been dangling from a gigantic crane above a cityscape destined for demolition.”

That description not only captures the room the character views, but reflects his doom, which develops character and moves plot.




ImageFrom Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus:

“Bailey spends the entire day willing the sun to set, but it defies him and keeps its usual pace across the sky, a pace that Bailey has never really thought about before but today finds excruciatingly slow. He almost wishes it were a school day so he would have something to help pass the hours. He wonders if he should take a nap, but he is far too excited about the sudden appearance of the circus to possibly sleep.”

This is an excellent example of “telling” and “showing.” We are told “he almost wishes,” but the “almost” reveals a little character, as does the description of the school day’s mechanism to “pass the hours.”



I know this is disparate, but Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree:

Image“Farmer Shiner’s was a queer lump of a house, standing at the corner of a lane that ran into the principal thoroughfare. The upper windows were much wider than they were high, and this feature, together with a broad bay-window where the door might have been expected, gave it by day the aspect of a human countenance turned askance, and wearing sly and wicked leer.”

Hardy doesn’t even get to the character or actual being of Farmer Shiner, but reveals his character through the long description of his house. We know all we need to know about Farmer Shiner and we haven’t even been introduced to him.

Look for the woulds, coulds and any summaries masquerading as description, and you’ll get to the “microscopic truthfulness” Ueland so well names.


11 responses to “Summary Masquerading as Description

  1. I really enjoyed this. A lot of wisdom here. Loved the examples too. Writing is hard work, no doubt, and there is an art to it. Telling the difference between showing and telling can be difficult, one I struggle with. I like the example of showing and telling together. Telling is an important and useful means of summing up something that is needed to advance the story, but not important enough to “show”, which draws out a story, makes it longer. So telling in a way that shows too is a perfect solution. Some stories I read could use a lot more telling. The writers seem to think that everything must be shown, so they draw out every scene, even if it’s trivial stuff. Thank you. for getting me to think again about these important differences.

    • I agree about the “show” and the “tell.” It’s that decision with which scenes need to go by quickly and which are the integral ones that contribute to character and/or plot development. Thanks for your comments!

  2. I think Brenda Ueland’s book is good . . . and I like your selections here to reinforce the importance of really bringing life to our words. I would actually love to read your revised/expanded poolside scene, if you feel like sharing it. And reading this piece on the heels of a New Yorker piece I really enjoyed re: Philip Roth and his friends has the effect of confirming why I’m so drawn to writers who really appreciate the underpinnings of honing one’s craft.

  3. I like her book, too, Deborah and appreciate your comments. Here’s part of the scene. It’s contingent on details of other chapters…I received a letter that kicked me out of the Mormon Church….
    “I fear that I used Bob for my undercurrent need which was to lend more normalcy to my non-Mormon life. Our marriage would run its course of seven years. My Sundays I now packed with one goal: fun. But the letter stilled my body. Now my brain, that no longer believed that families were forever, was stuck on the thought: What if this is all there is?
    One Sunday after receiving the letter, I was managing a retail store, not my calling but we get side-tracked in life by money. Annette, my work colleague-turned best friend called to ask if I’d go swimming. She was a tow-head bombshell. Another petite friend I towered over. Her Capitol Hill apartment complex had a kidney bean shaped pool that never collected children around it due to its gay professional clientele. It was a relatively quiet day in a still hot and dry September. Denver weather. I had my unhappy, pre-divorce thin body and wore a bikini.
    I didn’t tell Annette about the letter although I’d brought it with me in my backpack. She hardly knew I’d been Mormon since she was often my drink buddy. She grabbed two beach towels and we descended the stairs to the pool.
    Annette turned on her mini boom box to a rock station and pushed her chair flat. She reached her brown arms back and undid her bikini top. With her head turned to the side, she exhaled. “Ahhhh. This is the life,” she’d said or some kind of declaration that pronounces a beautiful day, that makes us grateful to be alive.
    I cranked my chair half-way and pulled out a New Yorker. Then, as if in answer to my mental struggle, an even strumming came on the radio. I set down my magazine and in the warmth exuding from my body, I sang verbatim, “Now somewhere in the black minin’ hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon-uh, one day his woman ran off with another guy, hit young Rocky in the eye, Rocky didn’t like that, he said, I’m gonna get that boy…” Annette’s eyes grew wide and she arched her neck to look at me.
    “What the?” she began to say but I kept singing the lyrics exactly on cue. To say that my whole life flashed before my eyes in that instant would be slightly cliché and not exactly describe the moment. If any song did sum up the person I’d grown to be, the person I always was, it was Rocky Raccoon.
    Annette turned on her stomach to watch my lips move, re-clasping her bikini top. Clouds skimmed a circle around us and the empty pool chairs reflected the rest of our possibilities in life. Some were cranked up with backs perpendicular and others still flattened by previous tanners. Two white towels were spread and left behind. The pool, silent, and leaf-skimmed trapped a bee, swimming in a vicious cycle.
    “Oh my God, E. You don’t like that song, do you?” Annette laughed, showing her skinny tongue.
    “It’s my favorite. My dad found the White Album in a dried-up creek bed in California. I think that record changed our lives.” Then I launched into my Mormon childhood and its chaos.
    “Wow, your parents don’t sound Mormon.” Annette folded her arms around her legs.
    “Well, they were and they weren’t, you know? They had some oddball tastes, that’s for sure.”
    I didn’t tell her about the letter. I opened my mouth to say something but the full-on stuffiness of my church days came over me. The restrictive Sunday best for the Lord made me shiver. Instead, I laid back down to enjoy that slice of time that seems to elongate after 2 P.M. on a Sunday that I now was privy to. The sky widened above us and we had been christened by The Beatles. I had a New Yorker, a pool, and a good friend. What I knew of the afterlife wasn’t relevant any more as I looked over at my blonde friend. This sky, this water, this friend was what I had at this moment, and that was all I could count on. This was my new religion.”

  4. This is immensely helpful information. It is so easy to lose sight of the reader when I am writing, or to simply get lazy… Deborah’s “the underpinnings of honing one’s craft” speaks to me, as I have only begun to think of myself as a real writer, and darned if that doesn’t mean that I now need to start some serious honing!

  5. So true. Honing is forever. I lose sight all the time, and then sometimes I just have to take a real break! 🙂

  6. Really good advice here, Elisabeth. The passages you chose to share are really great examples. This is probably something I struggle with all of the time but try to do my best depending on what I can do with the scenes and my characters. The art of making our words come to life for the reader can be scrupulous at times, but if we put ourselves in the readers shoes, and go over our work as the reader instead of the writer, I think it’s less tedious.

  7. ***careless and reckless***

    Those two words made me sit up immediately.

    What comes to mind is surprising, interesting, authentic writing.

    Great post. Xx

  8. Yes – I think those terms are so freeing, Kim! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  9. Hi Elisabeth!
    I really like your creativity in your blog. I nominated you for the Liebster New Blog Award! Congratulations! You can visit my blog for the details.

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