I’ve been re-watching Seinfeld sporadically this summer, and I’ve been struck by how many classic moments in the show involve the core characters recapping events that have already happened. Elaine talking about running into John F. Kennedy Jr. at the gym, Kramer recounting seeing the pig man, George’s “the sea was angry that day, my friends” monologue, or “He took it out.”
It’s a very common sitcom approach in general, whether it’s brunches in Sex and the City or Tim and Wilson talking over the fence in Home Improvement.
But recapping something that’s already happened very rarely works in a novel. Put a great deal of thought into what you choose to dramatize and what you leave off the page.
What’s really happening here?
I’ve written previously about the dangers of screenplay-izing or teleplay-izing your novel. Some writers inevitably default to movies and TV shows when they’re imagining their novels. The problem is that this often results in plodding, dialogue-centric novels where characters are just standing around endlessly chitchatting.
When we watch TV or movies there’s far, far more that we’re absorbing than the dialogue. There’s a setting, facial expressions, gestures, inflection, sound effects, physical presence, movement. If all you’re providing is dialogue and you’re neglecting physical description and gestures, you’re not even replicating the information we’re receiving when we watch a TV show.
You’re also missing the interiority that makes novels such a unique and powerful medium. We don’t have the chance to see and feel a moment in a TV show from inside a character’s head like we can in a novel.
There are a whole lot of reasons a recap works in a sitcom. Actors can be funny and it’s enjoyable to see characters’ reactions to what’s being said as a proxy for our reactions (something Japanese TV understands extremely well), not to mention practical considerations like not having the budget to show George Costanza saving a whale.
But most importantly: recaps leave more to the viewer’s imagination. Imagining George atop a whale is a whole lot funnier than actually seeing some bad CGI approximation.
In novels, everything is the reader’s imagination. Recapping doesn’t create a gap for more imagination, it just means we’re another step removed from experiencing a dramatic moment ourselves.
Put your dramatic moments on the page
In short: build your novel so that your reader experiences the most dramatic moments for themselves. There’s a great deal of power in experiencing events along with the protagonist(s) and seeing and feeling their reactions in the moment.
If all we’re getting is recaps of dramatic scenes after the fact, we’re distanced from what happened. It gets confusing about why we’re seeing what we’re seeing and what the narrative voice is choosing to show us. It can feel like the author is playing “keep away” with the good stuff.
Put a great deal of thought into what you keep on and off the page. Err on the side of including the dramatic moments and brushing past mere movement from Point A to Point B.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. There are novels like Absalom, Absalom! that involve recapping and some unspoken moments that happen off the page, and we mainly see them refracted in the aftermath.
But that was a very conscious choice for very specific reasons. The unspeakableness of some of the events was the point. It was not because William Faulkner just found it easier to write scenes centered around dialogue than he did describing action.
Be judicious and thoughtful about what you dramatize. Utilize the unique properties of novels as an art form rather than trying to imitate Sex and the City brunches.
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Art: Miyamoto Musashi Attacking Giant Whale by Utagawa Kuniyoshi