In my story, the MC goes through a number of events with a common theme, each told in separate scenes. At the end of the story, he tells a friend about the things he experienced. Both the events and telling the friend about them are central to the story. The story is told in 3rd person limited with only the MC's point of view.

Now I'm wondering whether it would be better to simply summarize the events in non-dialogue:

He described everything that had happened to him over the last few days.

Or, alternatively, to have the MC recount the events in dialogue.

The advantage to recounting would be that I could colour the events via the character's voice. For example, he might decide to skip some events and embellish others. And maybe the friend could react differently to different events being told.

On the other hand, since the reader already experienced those same scenes (through the MC's POV), maybe it would be boring?

I haven't yet decided on the number of events, but I'm currently planning on something between 3 and 5. If I end up adding more, they'd be too small for the MC to mention them in his recount.

My gut feeling right now is that, as long as the recounting is short enough (e.g. "I got into a fight with John" instead of describing the fight in detail), it should be okay.

I'm mostly basing this on my own negative reaction I had to summarized dialogue in Dean Koontz' Cold Fire. It's been years since I read that book, and the section was really small, but for some reason it still bugs me.

At one point, the main characters are having an argument in fully quoted dialogue. Then, in the middle of this lengthy piece of dialogue, there's this:

Holly: "I'm sick of journalism." Succinctly, she told him why. "I don't want to be your swooning admirer either..." [change of topic, more dialogue]

So there's detailed dialogue, followed by a single sentence summarizing more off-page dialogue, and then more detailed dialogue. To me, the summary feels out-of-place, especially as it's described as a "succinct" explanation, which surely would have neatly fit in there with two or three more sentences.

For the record, there are prior scenes where the reader sees Holly come to this conclusion (that she hates being a journalist), so the reader already knows her reasons, but the dialogue still feels off.

When is it okay to recount events the reader has already seen in dialogue?

3 Answers 3


I will second @MarkBaker and @Amadeus: avoid the repetition. "But I need the response," you say. "It doesn't flow," you say. Very well, that's the problem you need to solve - how to make it flow despite cutting away the part of the dialogue that would be boring to the reader.

Tolkien faced a similar dilema several times in the course of The Lord of the Rings when characters met each other after being apart. Most notably, at the Council of Elrond, much is recounted that is new to the reader, but also everything that has happened so far is "told" to those present, as well as all of The Hobbit. This is how Tolkien dealt with the situation:

To some there Bilbo’s tale was wholly new, and they listened with amazement while the old hobbit, actually not at all displeased, recounted his adventure with Gollum, at full length. He did not omit a single riddle. He would have given also an account of his party and disappearance from the Shire, if he had been allowed; but Elrond raised his hand.
‘Well told, my friend,’ he said, ‘but that is enough at this time. For the moment it suffices to know that the Ring passed to Frodo, your heir. Let him now speak!’
Then, less willingly than Bilbo, Frodo told of all his dealings with the Ring from the day that it passed into his keeping. Every step of his journey from Hobbiton to the Ford of Bruinen was questioned and considered, and everything that he could recall concerning the Black Riders was examined. At last he sat down again.
‘Not bad,’ Bilbo said to him. ‘You would have made a good story of it, if they hadn’t kept on interrupting. I tried to make a few notes, but we shall have to go over it all again together some time, if I am to write it up. There are whole chapters of stuff before you ever got here!’
‘Yes, it made quite a long tale,’ answered Frodo. ‘But the story still does not seem complete to me. I still want to know a good deal, especially about Gandalf.’
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book II chapter 2 - "The Council of Elrond"

None of what the reader has already heard is repeated. At the same time, Tolkien avoids the kind of ugly visible cut you want to avoid. Instead of recounting to us what is being told by the characters, he tells us of how it is told, how the tale is met, even how comfortable each speaker is in telling their tale. Those things are all new to the reader, unlike the content of the hobbits' tales, which is already known. The skip doesn't stand out, the reader isn't bored, and the conversation flows naturally towards the next speaker, who then continues to recount things which the reader doesn't know yet.

Consider skirting around what you need to repeat in a similar manner. Find something else to hold the reader's attention, and avoid repetition. Repetition is boring.


Okay, first your example: In the middle of an argument it doesn't make sense for one person to stop and explain a lot of stuff, and for the other person to stop and listen. That is why your "succinctly, she told him why" doesn't work, the emotions of an argument are not conducive to patience, or monologues of any length. Stopping to listen to the other person talk is a submissive act, and in an argument that means you've lost, regardless of the topic.

The more realistic response would be to just state "I'm sick of journalism, and I don't want to be your swooning admirer, either." Followed by ignoring (why is she sick of journalism?) and denial of the claim that he wants a swooning admirer, or counter-attack, or a claim she doesn't understand what is really going on, or retreat from the accusation, or accusation of a lie, etc. Battle!

Then later, when they are reconciled:

"Are you really sick of journalism? Did you mean that?"

"Yeah, really," she said, and recounted her conversation with Bethany.

If it is NOT an argument, and the atmosphere is conducive to a lengthy explanation by one person and acceptance of the role of friendly listener (or at least tolerant listener) by the other, then you can summarize, because it fits, and the reader is already aware of the early conversation.

It doesn't have to be "succinct."

That said, you should still review the conversation. If the original conversation was with Bethany, and the recounting is with Charles, then it is possible Bethany and Charles would think differently about our hero's claims, and what began the same would have turned out to be a different conversation. So there may be points along the way when Charles interrupts to ask for questions or clarifications, because he's not Bethany, and doesn't know what she knows or agree with everything she does.

You can address some of these issues in the "recounting".

... and recounted her conversation with Bethany. When she got to the point about David, Charles interrupted her.

"What, David said that? I don't believe it."

"Try talking to him wearing a dress, Charles, with no men around."

"So he really said that?"

"I'm not trying to get him in trouble, I'm trying to explain something to you."

Charles compressed his lips. "Okay. Good to know. So you were trying to get his approval ..."

"Right," she said, and continued the story.

An interjection or two while one character recounts a story will (to me) make the conversation more realistic, few of us hear a long story from a friend without saying a single word. It proves Charles is engaged and listening, and can contribute to the change in HIS emotional state to however this conversation about "being sick of journalism" is supposed to change his attitude or future decisions and actions; in the bit I provided, his attitude towards David will likely change, this may even lead to a confrontation.

These interjections also give the illusion of time passing, which is missing from "recounted her conversation with Bethany." That took some time, obviously, and if we are working, walking, eating, cooking or doing anything else of limited duration, it will feel strange for the reader if that 15 minutes just vanishes. The waitress can bring food, or refill drinks. If they are walking they can wait for a light to change. If they are driving they can make a necessary turn. Or, the listener can ask a question, be prompted to remember something and mention it, take something the wrong way, etc.


Recounting events that the reader has already seen is almost never OK. It is repetition. It is boring.

The essence of drama is tension. Writing a novel is difficult precisely because it is difficult to maintain tension over hundreds of pages. Going back over old ground is very antithesis of tension.

The only circumstances in which is would be okay is if it is incidental to something else that has a tension of its own, and if the recollection of past events is essential to creating tension in the present scene. That is tough to do, and it is hard to think of too many cases where it would be necessary to create or maintain tension.

In short, unless having characters recount events the reader has already seen is the only way to create or maintain tension in the current scene,and the current scene is indispensable to the tension of the piece as a whole, don't do it.

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