Use of Summary in Short Stories

I have a one track mind when it comes to writing short stories, which is that I usually have all my stories use one scene or one solid time frame. This type of narrow focus can work really well for Flash Fiction, where a narrow focus on time and scene creates even more tension. It keeps both reader and writer focused on a small, but intense action. These kind of stories can feel truncated for some and for others they can feel claustrophobic. The stories just don’t breathe and a full resonance between character action and theme is never created.

In Robert Boswell’s recent story at Triquarterly, he does a masterful job of using summary to move the characters forward in time to see how scenes knock against one another to create a larger resonance. His story, entitled “Sarah and Alexander: The Big Man,” is about how two character meet and how this affects the rest of their lives. If i were writing this story, i would have focused solely on the meeting and it’s resonance, but Boswell takes this meeting further, using it to show how lives are affected by the past.

Sarah imagines that the whole encounter was made up by her husband and while she likes the romanticism of it at first, she wonders if the set-up has skewed the entire way they’ve learned to interact with each, as if they are living inauthentic lives. “And if Alex is not the man who stood up for her, who is he?”

Again the use of summary, moves time forward quickly without bogging down the reader, but allows the reader to grow old with Sarah’s doubts, until finally Sarah has to ask her husband, because she can’t take not knowing if they are living a lie.

“In an instant she understands that what passes for courage in one person may be nothing special to another, which may mean that Alexander is not brave, merely a man who thinks nothing of physical encounters. She has given him credit for having the courage she would have to muster.”

And here at last is an example of Boswell’s use of summary to rocket us forward toward the climax: “From this point forward, time gathers momentum, hurtling along to arrive at a particular night in September—one week before the wedding, three weeks before her miscarriage. In the aftermath of sex, Alexander’s hand on her expanding belly, he says he has a confession to make.”

If any of this had been handled either too quickly, say in a 1 page Flash, or dramatized in a 40 page story, the reader would have lost their breathe and therefore their belief in the characters and situation or they would have lost their sense of tension. Summary creates this story, gives it room to breathe, while still holding us on the edge of our literary seats.

Sarah and Alexander: The Big Man

Sarah and Alexander: The Big Man


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