November 2


Three Recaps and Crisis: Storytelling Techniques, part 5

From Mrs. Foster's Literature Class.

The last post introduced the idea of “Recaps” in fiction.

These are moments when the action pauses, and the narrator (whoever that is) steps in to explain what the latest dramatic incident means. Through a recap, we learn what the main character is now thinking and feeling, and how he or she interprets the event that just occurred. You might think of a recap as a prose version of a movie’s close up shot of a character’s face after a major event.

Recaps, however, are far more versatile, because they allow us to burrow into the character’s mind.

From FX Rant: The Dolly Zoom
From FX Rant: The Dolly Zoom

Recaps are especially useful when deployed in threes. One recap on its own might seem just the narrator talking. Three or more recaps, however, act to guide the reader through the story’s developing action. In a story where one dramatic scene follows another, the impact of those scenes can be greatly enhanced by adding a recap after each of them. We could imagine a short story or a section of a novel as the journey between a period of relative calm (the opening exposition, which introduces the character’s situation and which sets the scene) and the climax, a moment of crisis, where the character is placed in an intense, extreme position.

In this moment of threat, opportunity, or experience of sheer frustration, the character seems required to take an action or have an insight that would have been, at the section’s starting point, completely unexpected, even unimaginable.

In other words, we are going up the “rising action” part of Freytag’s Triangle, building to some major event or change. Recaps help the reader understand why and how we are getting there.

(This is the fifth post in the series. You can start reading with the introduction, here. The aim of this series is to offer a sequence of techniques for aspiring writers, helping you develop more complex and more effective novels and short stories.)

Sketches - 33
A truly terrible diagram from me…

To give an example of how you might think about this, I’d like to use a reader’s draft of a story.

Kirizar was kind enough to respond to my prompt in The Rihanna Method with a trial run of a story outline. You can read her entire outline in the comment she left, but I hope she won’t mind if I summarise, as follows:

Cheryl works the local grocery store… she is the go-to person to handle anything the manager doesn’t want to… She is much put-upon at work and at home and desperately wishes for some other path in life. She wants to be able to take a trip back in time and remember the girl who planned to go to college, to see the world, before she became pregnant and married by age eighteen… Enter the stockboy—Edgar—who is an ex-con working the late shift and occasionally ‘lifting’ the damaged products or eating the grapes that ‘rolled loose’ in the bags..

Cheryl suppresses her rage on a daily basis until one night she just explodes and tells the manager exactly what she thinks of him… He fires her… Cheryl grabs her purse and the manager follows her out, accusing her of hiding ‘evidence’ he tries to take it from her, Edgar intervenes and a scuffle ensues. This knocks over his precious display of beer stacked in a pyramid and hosting the buxom, bikini clad cardboard eye candy… Manager accuses both of them assault and follows Cheryl out of the building, yelling harassment… Cheryl is blinded by tears and doesn’t see, when she is backing up, that she is heading straight for the manager—and runs him over, killing him. Or so she believes.

Edgar tells Cheryl she has no choice but to run now.

Now, there are a lot of ways to develop this idea. In particular, Joy Pixley gave some good suggestions for developing it in her comments.

I hope what follows is useful to Kirizar, and that it doesn’t seem a too radical suggestion: it seems to me that the above outline only describes the very beginning of the story. The reason why I feel this is that up to this point, Cheryl has been the victim of events rather than a causer of them. Not that a great story can’t be written about a victim of events, but, as we’re only thinking and outlining here, and Kirizar has yet to properly start writing sentences, it seems to me like Cheryl’s big decision — a climatic change, insight, or act — is still ahead of her.

Perhaps everything I quoted above is just the first page or so of compressed scene and narrative exposition. The story begins when Cheryl, on the run, in the company of a peculiar ex-convict, tries to figure out a way to get home. She wants only to resume her old life.

How about we image the story that follows as a sequence of recaps followed by dramatic scenes. As we begin the next part of the story, Cheryl is sitting in a hotel room, watching the local news channel covering the fight at the grocery store. She is alone, waiting for Edgar to come back from the local Walgreens with some snacks and a tube of Neosporin for the cuts she received in the fight with the manager.

Recap 1: She realises this is all a terrible mistake. She needs to get back to her family, but she doesn’t know how she can do that. She has killed a man, so she can’t give herself up. She wishes she could just turn back time. Everything she hated about her life is way better than being on the run. She doesn’t even find Edgar attractive! In fact, he is pretty much to blame for this. He’s the real villain. If he hadn’t encouraged her to stand up to the manager, she wouldn’t be in any of this trouble.

Scene 1: Cheryl sees a phone number come up on the news: a hotline for viewers to call in with information. Going to the window, keeping an eye out for Edgar, she calls the number. She was kidnapped, she says, by Edgar. He forced her to run — he even drove the car into the manager. He’s a killer! The police receptionist asks her where she is being held: she gives the address of the hotel. “We’ll be there in five minutes,” they say.

Cheryl sits on the bed, trembling. She doesn’t want to get Edgar in trouble, but… What choice does she have?

She checks her watch. One minute has passed. The door bangs open: Edgar has arrived. He says they have to leave immediately. He grabs her stuff, telling her to hurry. The FBI, he says, is watching them. He knows because his alien friends told him with their telepathy! Every time he gets in trouble, his friends in space advise him how to escape. Cheryl tries to get him to slow down, but she is too afraid of being discovered to effectively stand up to him, and a minute later, they are in the car. Edgar drives her away. In the distance, they see the flashing lights of police cars.

Edgar laughs. “The aliens are never wrong!”

Recap 2: They are still driving. Cheryl, listening to Edgar babble about aliens, reflects that she has got to try something more extreme. This guy is clearly nuts, and she has no choice but frame him for the manager’s murder. Whatever it takes, she has to get back to her family. Nothing can stand in her way. She is innocent. Edgar has to fall.

Scene 2: They arrive at a seedy-looking trucker bar. Edgar stops the car: my best friend, he says, owns this place. As they walk inside, Cheryl begins a fresh plan to bring the police to Edgar…

So. That’s the basic idea. Each recap shows the reader where the character is now, and each scene that follows raises the stakes, committing the character to more serious action — whether that action is calling the police or simply speaking more loudly in a party.


I hope you’re enjoying this series. There are lots of ideas still to come…



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  • This will teach me to post in haste and repent in leisure. Seriously though, no worries. This was a simple draft based on a recommended format in an earlier post. It’s odd, I would never have chosen to frame this story or even consider the subject matter, but once you put ‘words on paper’ so to speak, there is something that calls to you as a writer.

    As for Cheryl and Edgar–I hate to believe it, but I think she ends up plotting to kill him to be free of the situation. Perhaps a moment of grace happens and Edgar makes the decision for her to go out in a blaze of glory.

    • Dear Kirizar: I hope this was interesting, and fun to read — rather than upsetting or annoying. If the latter, I am sorry. I think you’ve got the start of a very fun story here, to be clear.

      • I am a blogger (in other words, an attention-seeking whore). The worst thing you could do to me would be to ignore me.

  • Also, am I confusing the term ‘Recap’ and thinking ‘Flashback’ or are the terms interchangeable?

    • I think a “recap” is very different to a flashback. A flashback is a snap back in time, to an earlier period in the character’s life. A “recap” is more like a flash-in. It brings the point of view into the character’s mind, to illuminate what they’re thinking and feeling at that moment. It’s about informing the reader what the character is experiencing because of the scene that just passed.

      • I wish there was a literary equivalent to the ‘doodle-a, doodle-a, doodle-a, doodle-a, doodle-a, doodle-a’ noise used in television/film when a character is about to flash back to an earlier time in the story line. (Used frequently on That Seventies Show.) Perhaps we could use double parentheses? [[Earlier joke much funnier than current joke. Flash back to that for added laugh value.]]

  • What you are describing resembles what is called the scene/sequel method, where the sequel offers the “recap” role.

    Scenes provide a goal, conflict and disaster. Sequels provide a reaction, dilemma and decision.

    In theory, a story alternates between scenes and sequels. The relative length of the two can help control pacing. Faster paces may alter the pattern, such as: scene – scene – sequel.

    • Hi CKBryant: You’re the second commenter to refer me to that concept — Captain Person was also trying to tell me I had unwittingly stolen an idea. I had better read up. I like that idea of altering the sequence based on pacing, skipping “sequels” as the action speeds up. It’s clever.

      • I actually find it somewhat impressive you worked all this out on your own!

        But yeah, like I said: Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Jack Bickham, Scene and Structure.

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