Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Better Summaries
A summary is more than a quick blurb telling the readers what your story is about. It needs to be a hook - a way to get prospective readers interested enough in the story to click through and see what it's all about. To do this successfully, a summary usually needs to include the following elements:
- An indication of who the main characters are. Unless your readers already know the main characters (as they often do in fanfiction), you should usually mention something about what kind of people they are.
- Something to hint at the theme of the work. Is it action? Say something about the conflicts that occur. Romance? Mention the chemistry between the two leads. Comedy? Throw in elements that are obviously silly or unusual.
- A rough outline of the plot or, in a shorter work, a line that suggests what's about to happen.
- A mention of a primary challenge that the characters will face.
Often, these elements will flow into each other. For example, "Mild-mannered pastry chef Sierra finds herself facing down evil doughnuts for outer space" tells us what kind of person the main character is (the chillest of pastry chefs), what the focus of the story will be (fighting an alien invasion), and the story's mood/genre (action/comedy)
Depending on the complexity of the story, the way you're writing it (character-focused, action-focused, etc.), and how unusual the premise is, how you present this information (and how much of it needs to be included) can vary. There are several general archetypes that can be used to structure a summary, which we will explore - along with a few more tips to help you out.
Table of Contents
- Type 1: The Overarching Plot
- Type 2: The One-Shot
- Type 3: The Character Profile
- Type 4: The Total Package
- Type 5: The Excerpt
- Type 6: The Biography
- Miscellaneous Tips To Write Better Summaries
Type 1: The Overarching Plot
This is the most common archetype you're likely to see on the Internet, which is a shame, because it's also the weakest. This is a summary that describes the bare-bones of the story and usually little else. It has its place, but be careful.
"Dean Winchester had enough on his plate hunting ordinary monsters - but when real, bona fide dragons show up, things take a turn for the worse. Finding out that he's the Dragonborn is just the cherry on top of this messed-up sundae. Supernatural/Skyrim crossover."
While it seems to pack a lot of information, this summary is actually really vague. It makes no mention of where the dragons come from or what they're doing, or whether this story takes place in the Supernatural world or the world of Skyrim. In this case, however, it doesn't matter. The sheer rarity of Dragonborn!Dean fic stands on its own, and the addition of a "voice" - note that the summary is not written in essay standard - helps it to come alive.
"Follow the story of Melina, a Pokémon trainer from the land of Hoenn, as she explores the continent, saves the world from the evil Team Magma, and tries to become the champion."
Not only is this the plot of a LOT of Pokémon fanfics, it's also the plot of the game, and there are no additional details that make it stand out. Consequently, most people who read this are going to think "been there, done that" and move on.
How to fix it:
Focus on what makes your story different from other fanfics. Is your main character a Team Rocket fugitive? Become best friends with a Pokémon that most people consider trash? Do the characters completely fail at averting the apocalypse? Figure out why your story is more than "just another trainer fic" and write that into the summary.
Type 2: The One-Shot
This is a particularly short summary, usually only a sentence or so, that is best suited for single-chapter stories. The One-Shot is good to use when a longer summary isn't needed, but a writer must be careful to include enough information in the space they've allotted themselves.
"Sitting in his cell on Asgard, Loki starts to wonder if everything he's done has really mattered."
Right off the bat, we know where Loki is (Asgard prison), what part of the MCU timeline this takes place in (between The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World), and what happens in the fic (Loki gets philosophical in prison).
"The Justice League finds themselves in trouble when a new threat comes to town."
This is so vague it could describe any number of fanfics and actual episodes. Consequently, it tells us almost nothing about the fic or why we would want to read it.
How to fix it:
When the One-Shot is done badly, it's usually because the writer is trying to maintain a sense of mystery. While this is a valid tactic, be careful not to withhold so much information that your readers are left with nothing. In this case, replacing "threat" with a more descriptive word - like "supervillain," "alien lifeform," or "mysterious prankster" - would serve to stoke the readers' imaginations, leading them to wonder more about the details that haven't been given.
Type 3: The Character Profile
This type of summary is based heavily on describing the main character and how they interact with, or feel about, the world around them. It's best used in stories where the plotline itself is especially formulaic - like the Pokémon example above - and will rely on the main character's unique traits to make the story stand out.
"Stefanus Vetinari is afraid of everything - wolves, trolls, dragons, and most of all vampires. That's why he chose the quiet life of a gardener, tending the grounds of the Temple of Mara. But when a clan of bloodsuckers attacks his city, he finds himself thrown into a conflict between the Dawnguard and the oldest vampires in Skyrim."
Although the story is set up as a retread of Skyrim's Dawnguard plotline, by drawing attention to the main character's identity and feelings, this summary alerts the reader that it is capable of putting a new twist on the story.
Bad example #1:
"Stephanie grew up in Redmond, California. She was the epitome of a normal teen: 5'6, blond hair, blue eyes, and curves just starting to emerge. It was her junior year of high school, and after a hard breakup, she was ready to take on the world."
This isn't even a summary. It's a biography of the kind that magazines include at the beginning of celebrity interviews. And it's not even a good biography - it's just a rundown of superficial traits that tell the reader nothing about who she is as a person or the situations she's going to face.
How to fix it:
Don't waste time explaining the basics. Instead, jump right into their differences and idiosyncrasies. Is Stephanie a bassist in a rock band? An aspiring baker? What does she want out of life, aside from love and companionship? And most importantly: what challenge is she facing right now that's keeping her from reaching her true potential?
Bad example #2:
"Everyone at the high school is afraid of Dillon. With his piercings and custom-built motorcycle, he is easily the toughest guy on campus and even the teachers know it. But now there's a new biker and town, and Dillon's going to have to defend his turf."
In this one, we know some pretty important stuff about the main character - like his aesthetic, his interests, and what kind of conflict he's about to get into. What we don't know is, what are his weaknesses? What makes him human? A summary isn't the place to show off how great or badass your character is - it's the place to tell your readers why they might be able to care about him. A better approach might be to mention that Dillon is struggling financially and needs to win a bet with his rival, or that his "bad-boy" attitude has put him under a lot of pressure that is only made worse by the new challenge he'll be facing.
Type 4: The Total Package
This is almost always the "sweet spot" of summary writing. It includes everything the reader might want to know: who the story is about, an idea of what happens, and why the reader might pick this story over a similar one.
"When a cryptozoologist accidentally unleashes a series of kaiju on the city of San Fransokyo, she is forced to reach out to Hiro and co. for help - but Fred's love for giant monsters creates an untimely rift in the team."
The reason this summary works is because it's a bit of a rollercoaster. It starts out with a brief description of the main OC, moves on to an explanation of the plot, and finally introduces a twist that elevates the story beyond "Monster of the Week".
There's no bad example for The Total Package, because it's pretty much impossible to do it wrong without turning into The Overarching Plot or The Character Profile.
Type 5: The Excerpt
Rather than a summary, some people choose to use a snippet of dialog or narration from their story. This can be effective, provided the dialog is suitably descriptive, but other times it just raises too many questions for audience interest. Like the One-Shot, it's most effective when used for a short story.
Bad example #2:
"Maron closed his eyes and rested his hand on his wife's shoulder. 'You know, Rachelle, when I think of you, I can't help remembering all the trouble you've caused me.'"
Despite its seeming lack of description, this summary actually tells us a lot. We know from this one snippet of prose who the primary characters are (Maron and Rachelle), the story's mood (romantic and introspective), and what will mainly be taking place (a conversation). All this is expressed in fewer words than it would take to write it all out.
Good example #2:
"The creature was small, with scaly green legs that stuck out in all directions. I froze as its tongue licked the surrounding air, unsure of whether I should run or stay."
Again, we have a setting established (horror) as well as a taste of what kind of adventures our hero will be having. Note that, in contrast with our last example, we don't know who the hero is - however, since the focus of the excerpt is on the monster rather than the narrator, that detail is not required.
"When he looked at her, he couldn't help remembering all the trouble she had caused him."
This excerpt, on the other hand, tells us next to nothing. We have no idea who "he" or "she" are, what their relationship is, or what the mood of this encounter might be. We could be talking about a guy looking at his sister, an Evil Overlord thinking about the spunky heroine he has chained up in his basement, etc. No bueno.
Type 6: The Biography
A close relative of The Character Profile, this type of summary gives us a direct look into the main character's psyche by telling the plot through the voice of the main character. It has similar advantages to The Character Profile and The Overarching Plot, but with even greater risk, as narrators are often unreliable and the summary may be used for information that should have been saved for the story. In addition, even a good Biography can be unnecessarily vague.
"No one was expecting the Martians to invade - least of all me, the guy who used to make pizza at the mini-mall. But they did, and they kicked us hard. Some of us escaped, and we're waiting for our chance to strike back. I don't know when it's coming, but it's going to be soon."
Although this sounds like an in-story narrative, it's brief and informative enough to serve as a perfectly good summary. It carries all the important information and includes a sample of the main character's "voice".
Bad example #1:
"I never thought I'd be accepted into the Navy, but here I am, standing on the prow and watching the horizon grow smaller and smaller as we venture into the unknown. What adventures await us? Will I ever see my family again? I don't know if I'll ever have the answers to these questions, but I'm determined to do my best."
Although this is good prose, it belongs in the opening narrative, not the summary. The amount of "fluff" in the text (the whole bit about the prow and horizon) is too heavy for what should be a brief explanation, and after all that it doesn't really tell us anything about the plot.
How to fix it:
Cut down on the "mood" wording and focus on the facts. How does the main character feel about this change in her life? What does she know (location, general risk factors, etc.) about her new assignment? Give readers some idea of who she is as a person, what she's about to get into, or better yet, both.
Bad example #2:
"All Lindsay wanted was to be a normal teenage girl. But then a ghost showed up at her house in the middle of the night and told her she was the secret princess of the underworld. Now she's fighting aliens every night, two unbelievably attractive ghosts are fighting for her attention, and worst of all, she has to wear a dress!"
While this summary is certainly informative, it's also highly subjective and horribly contradictory. For all intents and purposes, the heroine seems to have been dropped into the average teenage girl's dream world, yet her "voice" is trying to convince the reader that it's the worst thing that could ever happen to her. As a consequence, she comes off as either hugely dense or ungrateful, and is showing strong warning signs of being a Mary Sue.
How to fix it:
Show the character enjoying at least some of what's happening to her. She might not like wearing a dress, but beating up bad guys is pretty cool. And when it comes to the downsides of her new position, focus on things that anyone could reasonably be irritated by - such as being hated by alien forces, or missing out on time with her friends.
Miscellaneous Tips To Write Better Summaries
Banish the word "normal" from your vocabulary. The same goes for "ordinary", "regular", and any other variant. Not only are these words absolutely meaningless - everyone has some trait or another that makes them "not normal" - but every word you waste telling us how normal your character is (or isn't!) is a word you're not using to tell the audience what makes them that way.
Try to avoid needing tags. If your story has a particular pairing, or is set at a certain time, you can often convey that directly through the summary itself. There are, of course, exceptions - such as when you're tagging a pairing in a predominantly action/adventure story - but keep it minimal.
Keep yourself out of the summary. No asking for reviews, or talking about the amount of writing experience/skill you have. This includes statements like "This is my first fanfic, be gentle!" or "I suck at summaries!"
You might also like these:
Tips For Describing & Summarizing Your Story & Pitching Your Plot Ideas
A Few Things You Really Need To Know As An Anxious Writer And/Or Artist
Tips For Writing Fanfiction With An OC Protagonist
Tips For Writing Reader Protagonist Stories