When thinking of how to convey the events of your plot, you may be considering using compressed narration in fiction. Compressed narration is a quick description of what happens. Its opposite is narrating the entire scene.
Example of Compressed Narration in Fiction
It may be difficult to visualize compressed narration if you’re not familiar with it, so here is an example:
I hung out after school, picked Stella up from her swim practice, and we got ice cream. The entire time, I meant to talk to her about what Dad told me, but I couldn’t find the nerve. It was still hanging over me by dinner.
As you can see, we aren’t privy to the entirety of this scene. It’s described quickly and then the present action of the story, presumably, resumes. We don’t see the scene with Stella and the narrator eating ice cream. If the action was a movie in a VCR (remember those?!), it’d be squiggling by on fast forward.
So is compressed narration in fiction a good way of conveying plot? It sure is, when used appropriately. You don’t want to rely on it too much, but it can certainly help keep your narrative moving.
Three Times to Use Compressed Narration
One great use for summary in fiction is to skip over scenes that aren’t necessary to render, but important to mention. I doubt anything exciting happened over ice cream. The point of that example paragraph wasn’t even the ice cream, it was the narrator keeping a secret. So compressed narration was used to move the action forward a little and put even more pressure on the narrator to spill the secret.
This is a nice use of this technique. Remember, readers don’t need to read about every single little thing that happens in great detail. Sometimes a mention of it is enough.
A second use for compressed narration in fiction is to bring characters up to speed on information the reader already knows. If Bob just went through an ordeal, and wants to tell Sue about it, the ordeal is new to Sue, but not the reader. So handle it with compressed narration.
I told Sue all about what happened. She asked a bunch of questions and, when she was satisfied, we gaped at one another. “What do we do now?” I asked.
The third use of summary in fiction is when providing context. For example, it’s good in flashback, when you need to insert a little information, without going into full detail.
That summer the possum got stuck in our toilet and Mama finally put her foot down about moving, we ate rice six nights a week so Dad could save up all his tips.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be a long and drawn-out memory. The mention of it is enough to communicate the more important point: The family had to make ends meet, even if a toilet possum was what touched the whole thing off.
Summarizing Compressed Narration
Basically, compressed narration in fiction is used for things you want to mention, but which aren’t important enough to warrant directing reader attention to them. If you have been told that your narrative drags or that your plot lacks momentum, consider using summary in fiction to speed things up. Which events need a full render, and which can be compressed?
If you’re worried about your plotting and pacing, hire me as your novel editor. I can help you with many elements of your fiction craft, and help you tighten up your storytelling.
3 Replies to “Using Compressed Narration in Fiction to Speed Up Plot”
Toilet Possum totally needs to be an alt-country band. 🙂
Validation at last! Sometimes when I write compressed narration I get the knee-jerk comment, “Show, don’t tell.” And I’m like, “There’s nothing in this passage worth showing! It’s just contextual info I need to get out of the way!” Showing is for immersing the reader in a scene and giving it emotional impact. There’s no point in immersing the reader in a scene of two kids eating ice cream, and no emotional impact to describing a possum stuck in a toilet.
Thank you, Mary. This post felt quite valuable to me today. I thought immediately of a place I want to apply compressed narration in my YA work in progress.
I must confess, though, that I would experience an extreme emotional impact on finding a possum stuck in my toilet!