A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (May 25th 1977 and this one, to be precise) George Lucas used a (by no means new) technique called an opening crawl at the start of a little space movie he’d been working on. In this opening crawl he summarised all the basic information that the audience needed to know if they were to grasp what on earth was going on and what a ‘Death Star’ was anyway (an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Duh).
It became pretty iconic and worked well enough to grab his audience. I mean, until he started including choice phrases like ‘taxation of trade routes’. No one wants to read about that.
Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to summarise at the beginning of the odd play here or there either.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean
Or in other words – the play’s set in Verona, alright? These two families live there and they have been fighting for, like, ages.
That prologue summarises major plot point all over the shop and it includes some pretty important spoilers too. Come on Shakespeare, keep it together.
Indeed, the summarising prologue is a particular baby of sci-fi and fantasy writers and has been for as long as wizards have worn dresses and laser guns have made that PEW PEW sound.
One of my favourite series of fantasy sci-fi books uses this technique as the series progresses, prefacing each book with the same stock summary explaining how the planet was trying to kill everything on it and what the deal was with all the dragons. (The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Read them. They’re all kinds of fun and there are dragons.)
At this point I’m going to stop listing the many examples of when this technique has been used successfully because it’s starting to feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot here.
Ultimately, like all of the other techniques I’m advising you against, there isn’t really anything wrong with opening by way of a summary, especially if you’re partway through a series that has earned enough notoriety to justify the use of a quick and easy ‘previously on…’ but not enough that you can assume the reader already knows exactly what went on previously.
It’s those two words I just used that are the problem – quick and easy. Opening with a summary feels like another literary shortcut and it gives you a lot less chances to immediately show off the strength of your writing.
We meet Katniss Everdeen as she is sneaking out into the woods to hunt with Gale (it should have been him) and discussing the Hunger Games. This opening establishes the protagonist along with three other main characters, it creates intrigue about this society and the concept of the Hunger Games as well as giving the reader a basis of understanding about what is actually going on. There’s a little fluttering of romance, some suspense, archery, delicious bread and Gale (it totally should have been him).
Imagine if the novel had just opened with a quick and easy summary of the situation instead.
One thing this definitely would not have done is encourage the reader to invest in this reality. It also would not have established these characters and beyond that it would have taken away the intrigue of the scene when we finally did meet the main characters. It would not have been active and would have told, rather than shown. The bread wouldn’t be there to evoke the reality of hunger, the archery wouldn’t have been there to establish Katniss as a survivor or to show the reader that the kids of this reality are a little more (shall we say) resilient than you might expect and Gale wouldn’t even have been there (I cannot stress enough how much it should have been him).
Not to mention that this first line would have been lost:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
That’s a good first line. It establishes a perspective, plants the idea of them not living in luxury and most of all evokes the feeling that there is someone missing who should be there. Ok it sort of breaks one of my 11 rules that I have yet to write a post about (can you guess what it is yet?) but you can’t have everything.
What if instead the first line had been something like:
In a place called Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by twelve districts, it is the 74th annual Hunger Games where two child tributes from each district are imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena and, over a period of several weeks, they fight to the death.
No. It’s just not as good.
A summary expects your reader to care about this information and be invested rather than working to make them care, grabbing them and pulling them right into the story and giving them characters to invest in.
In summary, a summary is not an impressive way to open your novel and you’re trying to impress the person you’re sending your work out to. So impress them.
And avoid anything about taxation of trade routes. No one wants to read about that.