For many students, summarizing a narrative is far easier than summarizing nonfiction. Narratives are organized in time order, the way that we experience life. The underlying structure of the narrative summary is already built in to our daily experiences.
But this doesn't mean that summarizing narratives is easy. Easier, yes, but not at all easy. In fact, students often struggle with many parts of summarizing a narrative. Here is what I look at when I assess student summaries. These are arranged in priority order--to me, it's important to work on comprehension before dealing with writing a summary in present tense.
Comprehension: Did students understand the story? It seems obvious, but many teachers miss the fact that a failure to summarize is based in a failure to comprehend. A great way to explore this with your class is to have them summarize an easy story. With the comprehension weight lifted from their shoulders, students can focus more on the process of summarizing. If you listen to students as they collaborate, you may hear some great metacognitive statements.
When students are summarizing a narrative that is at or beyond their reading level, they will need more support and structure. Consider giving them the introductory sentence for the summary, a list of words to include, or a scaffolded summary. (Scaffolded summaries can be found in Daily Warm-Up Activities for Narrative Texts.)
Important events: Very capable students often write the longest summaries. "But everything is important!" a student argued. And she's not wrong. When students can really comprehend how all of the events in a story fit together, they want to include all of those fascinating events.
Of course, a summary needs to be shorter than the original text! I use the question "Which event does not contribute to the outcome of the story?" to help students choose which events to leave out.
For example, as my students were reading the drama "Perfectly Happy", (available here) many wanted to include all of the trades that the main character made. Looking at examples of how different students left out events or collapsed the list of events helped students to figure out what needs to be included in the summary.
When I realized that students were having trouble with choosing important events to include in their summaries, I taught a series of lessons about how to plan the narrative summary. Students used sketchnoting to take notes--and went back to their notes for the next assignment!
Paraphrasing dialogue: Once students have understood the story and can explain which events are most important, they sometimes fall into the habit of including key dialogue in a summary. I especially see this with stories in which important events unfold through dialogue. (Right now I even have a sign hanging in my classroom: Do not include dialogue in a summary!)
In my Summarizing Stories bundle, I have some activities that focus on helping students to paraphrase dialogue. You can also show some dialogue from the story, or, to make it even more engaging, from a video. How can students paraphrase this dialogue?
Using present tense: Many of my students are now working on this aspect of summarizing. After four weeks of summarizing narratives, they have a good handle on the basics and are working on the finer points. Encouraging students to use present tense in their summaries will lead them to more success in high school--and helps them to consider the role of verb tense in their writing. It's a great example of how writing and grammar work together.