I recently wrote a throwaway post on Facebook that got a surprising amount of attention. It was about soaking dishes. Yeah, wild, I know. I wrote a sentence that owed something, perhaps, to a specific moment in William Steig’s Doctor De Soto picture book.
I say “perhaps” because it’s hard to pin down where influences end and ideas originate. It spins in a circle, consciously and unconsciously. Who knows.
What I had written was: “I’m a pot and pan soaker. So was my father, and his father before him. It’s always been that way with my family.”
It made me remember De Soto and look up the scene:
Forgive the blur. The good doctor informs his wife, “Once I start a job, I finish it. My father was the same way.”
So, sure, he does it far more economically & elegantly than I managed to on social media. In my defense, he’s William Steig writing a book and I’m only James Preller blasting out a few thoughts on Facebook.
Here’s the full text from the page in case the blur is too hard to read:
That night the De Sotos lay awake worrying. “Should we let him in tomorrow?” Mrs. De Soto wondered.
“Once I start a job,” said the dentist firmly, “I finish it. My father was the same way.”
“But we must do something to protect ourselves,” said his wife. They talked and talked until they formed a plan. “I think it will work,” said Doctor De Soto. A minute later he was snoring.
One comment before the main thing:
I’m as opposed to adverbs as the next guy, probably more, but “firmly” sure does a lot of good work in that phrase, said the dentist firmly.
A clear signal. There would be no debate. This strikes me as that rare thing: a good adverb.
Something interesting happens on this page, where “scene” meets “summary.”
We are in a scene from the beginning, of course, announced by those two words: That night. It’s a variation on the “one day” trope of so many picture books: things are always so until . . . one day something happens. Story begins with scene.
We find ourselves with the De Sotos, flies on the lavender wallpaper, listening to them discuss the mortal danger of treating the fox’s toothache. Then comes that great sentence:
They talked and talked until they formed a plan.
The camera doesn’t move to a new perspective, it just pulls back and suddenly there’s a great distance. We are transported to the land of summary: They talked and talked until they formed a plan.
I wonder how Steig arrived at this sentence. Did he try to write out that full conversation in early drafts? Did he wrestle with it for days, weeks? Did he worry about the length, the slowness, the slog? This was intended, after all, for a 32-page picture book. There wasn’t time to waste. It could be that Steig immediately went to summary, instinctively knowing that he had to keep the plot moving forward.
So there’s this: Summary allows the writer to play with time.
The writer can make time move quickly, cross decades in a single sentence, or can slow it down to a drip, drip . . . drip. Even slower than real time.
In my current work-in-progress, a middle-grade novel tentatively titled Shaken (Macmillan, 2024), I decided to make a leap of four months from one chapter to the next. Those four months occur in the gap between those two chapters, the way that in a comic or graphic novel there’s a sliver of time in the spaces between each panel. This leap required a sentence or two of summary. Time passed. Winter turned to Spring. That kind of thing (but not those words).
Aside: Do you ever notice, btw, how very young children are unable to summarize when they recount, say, a movie they just watched? it’s always: and then, and then, and then, and then, etc. The art of summary is really about prioritizing. Recognizing what’s significant and what isn’t. Elmore Leonard’s great rule for writing: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
Let me make up an example on the spot:
He spent the summer working on the cabin, rising early and laboring until dark, while the loneliness filled up inside him. One September day, there was a knock on the door . . .
Summary –> Scene. The storyteller (and his listeners, one assumes) is not interested in all those dull empty days of summer. That part is boring. Let’s skip it. So the storyteller makes time fly by, an entire summer in a sentence.
Then there’s a knock at the door.
Time slows to a crawl.
He pauses, uncrosses his legs. Puts down the novel — Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men — spine up on the end table. He gazes out the window. The last light of evening had long ago died. A faint drone of tree frogs pressed against the panes. Who could it be at this hour? Should he rise to answer it? He coughs, and waits.
Anyway, yeah, it’s cool how Steig pulls that off in the middle of a scene — a sentence of summary, omitting at least an hour of discussion — before he returns us right back to that same “moment” (without ever moving the camera; the focus just gets tighter).
He ends the page with another great understated sentence.
A minute later he was snoring.
A minute has passed in the distance from a period to the capital letter of the next sentence. A minute later. And lo, the good doctor is asleep! Resolved and at peace. Troubled no more. The plan has been set and he needs his rest.
I’d turn the page, right?
What is the plan, anyway?
Steig didn’t tell us. He withholds. That’s actually another technique worthy of discussion. The vital importance of being clear, and answering questions for the reader as soon as possible (to avoid confusion), but also to recognize the value of not answering every question.
How those unanswered questions can prod the reader to do the single best thing that any reader can ever do — turn the page.
William Steig was a writer who knew what he was doing.