Descriptive Versus Explanatory Summary

Descriptive summary is distinguished from explanatory by its presentation of the quality of an action. While explanatory summary would capture the sequence, logic, and meaning of the action, moving us through time, descriptive summary concerns itself with giving us an overall sensory impression, moving us through space.

If, for example, we were writing about a battle going on, descriptive summary would give us interesting snapshots of the action, details of the uniforms, the weapons, the sounds and smells of battle. Explanatory summary, on the other hand, would likely tell us about the tactics of both sides, the progress of the battle and even of the war. Descriptive summary could never give us details about the war; it would give us pictures of specific engagements, particular ships, individual soldiers and sailors. Explanatory summary would give us national strategies, information about the movement of huge armies, about the economics of war, the results of war. Descriptive summary would have us learn about war by having us hear the scream of one shell, the whimper of one man. Depending on the writer and the work, some of this descriptive work might be shifted to the dramatic method, letting us hear two wounded men in a foxhole talking about what it'll be like if they ever get home. The usual method would combine some drama, some description, some explanation.

Descriptive summary uses two descriptive techniques: informative description and suggestive description (shortened here to informative and descriptive).

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Informative and Suggestive Description

Informative description tends toward analysis, lists, numbers, categories. It intends completeness. It allows no interpretation. It presents just the facts. Informative (sometimes called technical) description tells us how the new machine works, never how marvelous an invention it is, nor anything about its probable effects on the future of humankind—certainly nothing about the beauty of the beast. Beauty lies in suggestive description.

Suggestive description prefers incompleteness, favors impressionism. It looks to our imagination for its power. Informative description builds its power upon rock-solid facts, data, logic. Suggestive does not trust facts (it says, "Don't confuse me with facts!"); it prefers the truths of metaphor. Informative distrusts the inaccuracy, the incompleteness, the vagueness of metaphor. Suggestive will not hesitate to interpret the meaning of that described; informative considers interpretation pretentious and beyond its ken. Suggestive says that nothing lies beyond its ken.

The word "suggestive" is used because this kind of description suggests (and only suggests) something to the reader's imagination, enabling the reader to bring to the description his or her own previous similar experiences in order to understand. Informative would not trust the limitations of the reader's memory; it wants understanding, comprehension—and it wants it now.

For an example of these two forms of descriptive summary, consider the difference between two descriptions of the same thing. One is an advertisement in the paper listing a cabin to buy:

Rewriting that informative description into a suggestive description for a letter home to his parents, a young man might write something like this:

Dear Folks:

I'm thinking of buying a terrific log cabin up on the Deerkill River—you know, up near where you used to go back in the old days, Dad. It's got plenty of room downstairs with a bedroom loft up under the slanting log roof. I'll love lying there and looking up at those rough-hewn timbers, thinking about Abe Lincoln and all the other greats (like me) who lived in log cabins. I understand that logs have the highest insulation value of any materials—and they look so great, outside and in. And what a fireplace! I could fit a six-foot Yule log in there next Christmas. And it's got all the fire tools and hooks for hanging pots over the fire and everything. There's this great shed attached to the back, sort of a lean-to, that I can convert into a place for writing. Do you think you could lend me____

Not too many creative nonfiction pieces fall into the informative description category because it is ordinarily too informational, too technical to be "creative." Straight informational writing is rarely used for openings by creative nonfiction writers because it naturally lacks in details, information, and data that which is human, scenic, dramatic, vivid. In "The Best of Everything," in a collection of travel pieces entitled Journeys, Jan Morris has found a way, however, to provide us with information set buoyantly afloat on a sea of imagery. It is not purely informative; there's a lot about its description that's suggestive, but it's more informative than suggestive.

On Sunday evening in summer the week-end sailors of Stockholm come streaming home from their sailing grounds in the Baltic peninsula—from Vasholm and Grinda, from Gallno and Djuor and Moja, where the island-jumbled waters of the Swedish coast debouch into the open sea. The sun is glinting then on the golden baubles that ornament the towers and steeples of their city; flags fly bravely from masts and rooftops; and the small boats hasten sun-bleached and purposeful through the harbor, bronzed fathers at the helm, tousled children flat on the deck, like ships of a light flotilla returning from distant action.

Into the Slussen lock the boats jam themselves, watched by the lockkeeper in his glass cabin (TV monitor flickering in its shadows), and with a ponderous movement of steel gates, a swoosh and dripping of water, they are raised from the level of the sea to the level of the lake that lies beyond; and so they disperse into the gathering dusk, away among the myriad creeks of the city, to nose their way into unsuspected canals between apartment blocks, to tie up at private jetties among the trees, or to disappear into the numberless marinas that lie concealed, like so many little naval bases, all over the watery capital.

The technical information she's put in there about Stockholm (the locks, steel gates, TV monitor, numerous marinas) is made more interesting because she's mixed it in attractively with all the more suggestive description. She has combined her informative words with her descriptive words very artistically so that not only do we come away with an excellent image in our minds of a Sunday evening in Stockholm as the weekend sailors come streaming home to harbor, but we also learn many facts (information) about Stockholm as a watery capital. Although the opening does give us factual information, it can't be considered either informative description or technical writing.

Taking a cue from Jan Morris and her enjoyment of Stockholm, I've selected the following opening that's also about Stockholm, from Cynthia Ozick's "Enchantment at First Encounter" (Sophisticated Traveler, the New York Times supplement). Ozick is better known for her fine fiction, and we can see that influence on the way she presents Stockholm to us. With this excerpt we leave informative description and turn to suggestive description, another technique for applying the descriptive summary method.

One morning in Stockholm, after rain and just before November, a mysteriously translucent shadow began to paint itself across the top of the city. It skimmed high over people's heads, a gauzy brass net, keeping well above the streets, skirting everything fabricated by human arts—though one or two steeples were allowed to dip up into it, like pens filling their nibs with palest ink. It made a sort of watermark over Stockholm, as if a faintly luminous river ran overhead; yet with no more weight or gravity than a vapor.

Since this is an example of suggestive description, we have to accept the mysteriously translucent shadow that paints itself high above Stockholm's streets. We may not be sure just what it is, but we're reasonably sure it's a cloud formation of some kind. We allow the creative nonfiction writer, as we would a poet, to bathe us in beauty. If the intent of the piece were to educate us about meteorological phenomena that visit Stockholm, of course, the writer would be obliged to tell us in no uncertain terms what this mysterious overhead stream is and what its implications are for public health, aircraft safety, etc.

Had Michael Herr written the following excerpt from Dispatches about just one night in a single Vietnam battle or about just one location, it could have been called a "dramatic opening," but since it deals with Vietnam scenes in general, it falls into what I've labeled the summary method, using the technique of suggestive description.

You could watch mortar bursts, orange and gray-smoking, over the tops of trees three and four kilometers away, and the heavier shelling from support bases further east along the DMZ, from Camp Carrol and the Rockpile, directed against suspect troop movements or NVA rocket and mortar positions. Once in a while—I guess I saw it happen three or four times in all— there would be a secondary explosion, a direct hit on a supply of NVA ammunition. And at night it was beautiful. Even the incoming was beautiful at night, beautiful and deeply dreadful.

I remembered the way a Phantom pilot had talked about how beautiful the surface-to-air missiles looked as they drifted up toward his plane to kill him, and remembered myself how lovely .50-calibre tracers could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel a total serenity, an elevation that put you above death, but that never lasted very long. One hit anywhere in the chopper would bring you back, bitten lips, white knuckles and all, and then you knew where you were.

Certain words and phrases give away the fact that a piece of writing is summary rather than dramatic in form. In the example from

Dispatches, we see phrases like these: "you could watch"; "once in a while—I guess I saw"; "there would be a secondary explosion"; "I remembered the way a Phantom pilot"; "coming at you as you flew"; "one hit... would bring you back".

Although many of these expressions are in past tense, that's not what makes the form summary rather than dramatic. Herr could have written something very dramatic in form and yet have had all the verbs in past tense. The difference is that the dramatic form requires that all the action be in a scene that occurs once and once only—as life's scenes naturally occur. As soon as the writer begins using phrases like "there would be," and "as you flew, " we see that the action was actually a series of actions spread over time. The way to write dramatically is to write about one continuous action in essentially one place by essentially the same people. (For more on how to write dramatically, or scene by scene, see Chapter 3.)

The following exemplary writing opens Joan Didion's "Los Angeles Notebook" from her collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Of all the better-known creative nonfiction writers, Didion writes some of the best suggestive description (summary method). This essay about the Santa Ana wind of southern California does more than leave us with an image, it creates deep within us a mood.

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down though the Cajon Pass, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

To further illustrate the distinction between the dramatic and summary methods, I've taken Joan Didion's excellent summary opening to "Los Angeles Notebook" and written it as though she had instead used the dramatic method. The following are my words, not hers. I hesitate to think how beautifully she would have handled the same task. (I should probably slouch off toward Bethlehem.)

"Juanita," she screamed over the machine, "would you please not run the vacuum in the room where I am. I've told you a thousand times—a hundred times today already. It's hot enough outside without that machine blasting hot air on my feet to remind me."

"What about him?"

"He cries in his crib all the time, señora."

"Well, make him stop crying by the time I get back from the airport. That kind of stupid screaming drives his father crazy...and stop sulking. It's bad enough to have one cry-baby around here.. "

She helped him tie down the wings and chock the three wheels, working hurriedly to get off the blazing concrete and into the cooler car.

"So, did your writing go well?"

"Are you kidding? What with Juanita sulking around the house, and the baby fretting—and that damned Los Angeles phone company."

"You're still fighting it out with them over that bill? Christ, it was only off by five bucks. You're driving yourself and everybody else nuts over a measly five bucks. Jesus."

"Almost six."

As soon as he got in the car, he turned on All News Radio.

"Good afternoon folks. Well, this afternoon is livable, but it'll be a different story later today and for the next few days. Yes, folks, that ol' devil Santa Ana is back. She's blowing in from the northeast following her usual track. So, if you can possibly do so, stay off Route 66, and especially out of Cajon Pass. A listener up that way just called in to warn us that sandstorms are already blasting across the highway—visibility zero. And there's no telling what that'll do to your nice new paint job, or your windshield."

"You know, John, even before I heard the sirens, I knew the Santa Ana was coming. I could feel it deep inside—know what I mean? And then I started behaving stupidly. God, I was so nasty to Juanita—and you know how much I love her. Come on, let's get on home. All I want to do is lie down until dinner's ready. I feel all woolly inside."

I suppose I could have written that better had I used even more words, but I wrote it only to illustrate the difference between approaching the same situation as scene rather than as summary, the method Didion used. The two methods are there for you to use— depending on the particular piece and its purpose—and your relative strengths as a writer. In hands less clever than Joan Didion's, the summary method might not have worked out here as well as it did. In her writing, you can see that the same content can be put across very efficiently and effectively in far fewer words than in descriptive writing. Still, you can see the possibilities of the dramatic method to make the writing involving. Perhaps if "Los Angeles Notebook" had been the opening chapter of a longer book, she would have used the dramatic method. As it was, she was writing a short essay and would never have squandered so many words (as I did) just to begin establishing character and to set a mood.

Didion's summary method (through suggestive description) works so well because of her excellent choice of words, details, and images. Her writing is concrete and suggestive enough that we can form our own scenes on our internal screens. That's the goal—you want to make a passage visual without using a lot of adjectives and without all of the words usually required by the dramatic method.

Nonfiction and fiction writers alike must plan in advance which things might be presented best by scene and which by summary. Since creative nonfiction is typically written scene by scene (dramatically) and since scenes are usually joined (or separated) by passages that use one or more techniques of summary, you need to study and perfect both techniques.

For another look at how various professional writers use suggestive description in their openings, let's read "New York: A

Serendipiter's Journey," an excellent piece by Gay Talese collected in Fame and Obscurity. Although you'll find much information about the city, the emphasis is on describing New York City. The summary opening suggests things to our imagination more than it explains what's happening in the city.

New York City is a city of things unnoticed. It is a city with cats sleeping under parked cars, two stone armadillos crawling up St. Patrick's Cathedral, and thousands of ants creeping on top of the Empire State Building. The ants probably were carried there by winds or birds, but nobody is sure; nobody in New York knows any more about the ants than they do about the panhandler who takes taxis to the Bowery; or the dapper man who picks trash out of Sixth Avenue trash cans; or the medium in the West Seventies who claims, "I am clairvoyant, clairau-dient and clairsensuous."

New York is a city for eccentrics and a center for odd bits of information. New Yorkers blink twenty-eight times a minute, but forty when tense. Most popcorn chewers at Yankee Stadium stop chewing momentarily just before the pitch. Gum chewers on Macy's escalators stop chewing momentarily before they get off—to concentrate on the last step. Coins, paper clips, ballpoint pens, and little girls' pocketbooks are found by workmen when they clean the sea lion's pool at the Bronx Zoo.

The explanatory summary type of opening is well used in "Marrakech" by George Orwell. He begins his story with a great amount of descriptive detail that appeals to our imaginative powers. If he had let us hear some of the conversations going on, this excerpt might have been put under what we've called "dramatic openings," but it stands instead as an example of suggestive description summary. Certainly we learn something (informative) about the culture in Marrakech, but Orwell has woven those pieces of information so well into the description itself that we can't call it informative description. The intent of this opening is not to "inform" us, but to coax us into reading on into the third and subsequent paragraphs where he does inform us about the terrible conditions the local people endure.

As the corpse went past, the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

The little crowd of mourners—all men and boys, no women—threaded their way across the market-place between the piles of pomegranates and the taxis and the camels, wailing a short chant over and over again. What really appeals to the flies is that the corpses here are never put into coffins, they are merely wrapped in a piece of rag and carried on a rough wooden bier on the shoulders of four friends. When the friends get to the burying-ground they hack an oblong hole a foot or two deep, dump the body in it and fling over it a little of the dried-up lumpy earth, which is like broken brick. No gravestone, no name, no identifying mark of any kind. The burying-ground is merely a huge waste of hummocky earth, like a derelict buildinglot. After a month or two no one can ever be certain where his own relatives are buried.

As Orwell now goes into paragraph three, he provides us a good example of how a writer will switch from one basic form (suggestive description) to another basic form (general explanation) when he or she considers the opening over.

When you walk through a town like this—two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in—when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact____

I've included the beginning of the third paragraph to show that after using suggestive descriptive summary to lure us in, he shifts here into general explanatory summary. Orwell could have started right off with the third paragraph as his opening, but he knew that he could not draw us into the article with these rather dry words of straight explanation. He knew he could make us follow the flies straight into the story, where he wanted us. He had an important message to get across to us readers, and he used flies and corpses as bait. Homely? Yes. Ugly? Effective? Definitely.


Two techniques are primarily used in applying the explanatory summary method: general explanation and expository explanation. Expository explanation is at the very end of the dramatic/summary continuum, the least dramatic of all writing. (The relationship between general explanatory and expository writing is analogous to that between suggestive and informative descriptions.)

If you were to write a book on how to write short stories, you'd have to give broad, general instructions that would apply to any short story a reader might someday write—this would be general explanatory writing. If, on the other hand, you were writing an article about how you wrote your own award-winning short story, you'd not write in a general way; you'd write in a highly specific way about that one particular story—this would be expository writing. (You'd be "exposing" for everyone just how you went about writing that terrifically successful story.) Now, if your article went beyond telling how you wrote that story and drew general advice out of it to show just how the reader might go about writing short stories in general, you'd have crossed back over the line into general explanatory writing. General explanation concerns itself with presenting an action. It does so by appealing largely to our imagination.

In "Golden Prague: Travels through a Police State," (Wall Street Journal, October 15, 1982) Manuela Hoelterhoff gets our attention by a descriptive first paragraph, and then moves into a general explanatory summary second paragraph. Recall that I make all these labels and categorizations just to give us a way of talking about the variations that exist with what I've labeled overall as "summary." You're not expected to sit down and say to yourself, "I think this calls for an opening that's three-quarters of the way along the summary part of the continuum, somewhere between informative description and general explanatory summary____"

We still had a kilometer or so to go, but all the welcoming signs were already there ...the watchtowers; the closely trimmed meadows that couldn't hide a squadron of relapsed field mice.

We pulled up the car in front of a roadblock manned by glum, baby-faced guards carrying machine guns.

As we now enter the second paragraph in Hoelterhoff s piece, we can see easily that the story has begun. Some might argue that only the first paragraph qualifies as the opening, but my feeling is that the first two paragraphs work indivisibly together to "open" the article for us:

We'd driven here from Vienna—less than an hour from the border and some 200 miles from Prague, our destination. Straight ahead was what Neville Chamberlain described as "a faraway little land that few of us know anything about." Chamberlain, to be sure, didn't, and as a result, Czechoslovakia became for a few bloody years part of the Nazi empire. Now, of course, thanks to people with similarly informed geopolitical views, the Czechs are tied with cement overshoes to their socialist comrades in the Soviet Union.

The opening to Landfalls in History, by Hammond Innes, lives comfortably, and unambiguously, within the labeled walls of general explanatory summary. In these first three paragraphs we find almost no description and little exposition. Almost all of the words "tell" us what the article will be about and how it came to be written. Innes does an extremely fine job of luring us into the article by explanatory writing alone, and this requires writing of high caliber. Many non-fiction writers avoid the straight explanatory opening, fearing that it lacks the power to engage us immediately.

Some travelers collect country houses; others ecclesiastical buildings, gardens, restaurants. I seem to collect fortresses. And since I have spent quite a slice of my life at sea, mostly with my wife and sailing our own boat, many of these have been sea fortresses on the shores of Europe, vast landmarks that have produced in me a sense of excitement. It is difficult to explain what this means to those who are not sailors. You come across the sea—the Channel, the Mediterranean, even an inland sea like the Marmara—and there is the land. But where is the shelter you are seeking? For many hours perhaps you have been voyaging on the wind, navigating by the speed at which your sails have driven you through the water, by how the wind and tide and breaking seas have moved you, and you are searching, searching through the glasses, hoping to God you have got it right, that the port you have been aiming for will emerge over the bows.

Then, suddenly, there it is, that huge medieval fortress described as "conspic" in the pilot book, standing there solid and reassuring. Then I feel like Cook or Magellan or those distant Vikings who first sighted Vinland, the sense of discovery as strong as if I had crossed an ocean. I have made it, and there to prove it is the fort guarding the entrance to the port.

As we've seen with some of the other openings, other writers might have had Innes and his wife conversing on deck as they approach a new fort to add to their collection of landfalls made. These writers might also have described the state of the sea, the towering of the clouds, and the blowing of the whales as the form looms on the horizon so pink in the false dawn. If Innes had written his opening like that, depending on the relative amounts of description and explanation used, we might have had to classify it as a suggestive descriptive form of summary opening. As he did write it, this piece perfectly exemplifies the general explanatory form.

It is mostly the dramatic method that distinguishes what this book calls "creative" nonfiction from "traditional" nonfiction. This is not to say that all traditional nonfiction writing is undramatic. The point is that traditional nonfiction writers, journalists in particular, try not to write dramatically, fearing it plays too much on the reader's emotions and tends to distort the facts, or at least a reader's perception of the facts. The creative nonfiction writer does not want to distort the facts either, but tries, through drama and vivid writing, to get the facts across to readers, especially to readers who might otherwise not even read about the subject. Many readers avoid reading for fear of being bored to death by exposition or explanation that lacks the breath of life, that, despite the numerous facts, lacks realism.

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  • anton
    How to write an explanatory summary?
    9 years ago
  • berylla fairbairn
    What is the diffference between informative explanatory?
    8 years ago

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