Summary Openings

Whereas the dramatic method requires the people to live out the story right before our eyes, the summary method, essential to most creative nonfiction, requires a teller. The summary method has its values and strengths, of course, but it also has its weaknesses. The weakness of the summary method lies in the teller: No matter who tells the story, the reader experiences a story being told instead of watching it unfold. As in life, we tend to believe more what we overhear than what we're told. Therein lies the explanation of why the summary method has a weakness—we prefer to be our own witness. The dramatic method relies more on seeing, the sense we're used to relying upon. Summary, by contrast, usually lacks imagery. In the next few chapters you'll see how our best nonfiction writers make even their summary writing vivid, lively, imagistic, visual. They try to get as close to purely dramatic writing as is possible through summary alone.

The summary method, using various techniques I'll soon describe, serves extremely important ends. One of its greatest strengths is its ability to telescope time, something the dramatic method can't easily do. A scene seems closer to real time; something that in fact took a long time would take that much time in a scene, or the writer would write several scenes to show the passage of time. With summary, writers can achieve the impression of continuous flow between scenes, movement without awkward conjunctions. If scenes are the building blocks of a story, summaries are the cement that binds. Cleverly written summaries between scenes can provide smooth transitions between time, even great lengths of time.

Summaries serve another important purpose related to the handling of time. They slow the pace, allowing suspense to build. Scenes accelerate the pace, not because they're short, but because they're vivid, concrete, and active in their imagery. The clever writer will pace the piece by carefully orchestrating which information is put into fast-paced scenes and which into slower-paced summary. Most of the information in a story or article can be supplied by either method, but the pace, suspense, and emotional impact will be different, and often a good mix of the two is what's best.

Creative nonfiction writers mix both dramatic and summary methods to make nonfiction more interesting for the reader. Straight exposition—facts with no drama, no description, and no interpretation—tends to make for dull reading. Journalistic writing traditionally has tended toward that kind of writing, in the interest of "objectivity." Creative nonfiction writers believe they can add drama and interpretation without destroying objectivity. They believe they are actually more objective because they're more thorough in their reporting, going to greater depth in their research. This book does not intend to argue that point; it intends only to show how with creative nonfiction you can go about the task of creating nonfiction that reads more interestingly while still respecting the facts.

Interspersed throughout this chapter are some openings that are more summary than dramatic. Keep in mind that these openings are sometimes part one type and part the other, and remember that it is the author's intent that determines how we might classify a particular opening.

The summary method is carried out by two techniques, description and explanation. First, I'll discuss "descriptive summary." In its appeal to the imagination, it's closer to the dramatic method than is "explanatory summary."

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