Tips For Describing & Summarizing Your Story & Pitching Your Plot Ideas
When you summarize or describe your story or plots to people, it's important to do so in an engaging and comprehensive manner. Unfortunately, many people I've encountered fail to do this - their descriptions or summaries are nigh-incomprehensible, or they ramble on about all of the wrong aspects of the story, or they're completely unprepared to handle themselves when the inevitable plothole-spotting starts happening. Hopefully, these tips should help you avoid these problems.
Table of Contents
- Story or Sandbox?
- Concision & Precision Are Your Friends
- Your Description/Summary Should Make Sense Without In-Story Context
- Watch and check the hype
- Be Prepared To Answer Questions
Story or Sandbox?
When someone starts telling me that their fantasy world is inhabited by elves, dragons, demons, etc., I start spacing out. It’s not that these elements are bad - it’s that they’re the wrong point of focus for a story pitch. When a person begins by describing what is in their fantasy story rather than who, it tells me that the author is more focused on creating a sandbox to play around in rather than creating a good story for the enjoyment of others.
Sandboxes do have their place - tabletop RPGs are essentially sandboxes. But remember, you’re not pitching an RPG setting - you’re pitching a story. Instead of what and where, you need to focus more on who and why.
Concision & Precision Are Your Friends
If you’re ever planning on selling your story or having complete strangers read it, you need to remember is that the average person is only going to spend perhaps half a minute reading your summary or blurb, and if you’re very lucky, that might get them to spend about a minute more reading an excerpt from your story that may or may not be randomly selected to get a feel for your style of writing. The average adult reads about 250-300 words per minute, which means that you’ve got around 125-150 words to grab a person’s attention. This means that you need to get as much useful information jam-packed into these few words as possible. (For the record, this paragraph - this sentence included - is 131 words long.)
On a site like fanfiction.net, you’ll find yourself even more limited - you have a 384 character limit in which to write something that will entice people to click your link. Some sites give you even less - 150-200 words isn’t uncommon. (This paragraph, incidentally, is 294 characters long.)
In real-time conversation, if you spent too long droning or rambling on about your story and/or focus on the wrong details, your target is going to lose interest.
You should be able to put your initial description into a few short lines, and those lines need to say something. For example, saying “my story is about a girl who must defeat an evil queen and falls in love with an elf” doesn’t really tell us anything about the characters at all. On the other hand, “my story is about a peg-legged baker who must overcome a past shame to overthrow a queen who rules with an iron fist and falls in love with a cynical elven blacksmith” gives us a lot more information.
Your Description/Summary Should Make Sense Without In-Story Context
Consider the following statement: “Theresa must find the Laxamanica to stop the Grizbor from taking over Paratrila!”
It's next to worthless as a summary because it's almost completely devoid of information because you, the reader, have no idea what a Laximanica is, who/what the Grizbor is/are, and for all you know Paratrila could just as easily be a one-horse farming town as it could be an underground dwarf kingdom.
However, phrasing it as “Theresa must find a magical weapon to stop an invasion of insectoid aliens from taking over her world” communicates the premise of the story in an effective manner.
Use real-world terms as much as possible and avoid any description that refers to something that only exists in the universe you’re talking about. Essentially, at this point it’s your job to translate and interpret your world into terms that people who have heard absolutely nothing about it with it can easily understand. When you describe your world, put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it. Go with what makes sense from that perspective.
Watch and check the hype
If you hype up your story as really awesome, epic, or the best or greatest anything, you're just setting yourself up for a fall. Those who are more cynical and jaded will see you as arrogant and overconfident and will be put off from you and your story. Those who do fall for the hype will feel let down and possibly even betrayed if the story doesn't live up to their expectations, and as a result will feel more negatively about the story than they would have if you hadn't tried to hype it up so much. Just tell people what your story is about and leave it at that.
Be Prepared To Answer Questions
Lots of questions. Tough questions. Lots of tough questions. Any time you share an idea with other people - and particularly if you ask for their opinions on it - you’re going to find them asking questions you never realized needed to be answered and pointing out flaws you never realized needed to be accounted for.
At this point, many people will completely shoot themselves in the foot. For example, a common response to critical questions is “it’s fantasy; it doesn’t have to be realistic!” That is technically true - but fantasy still has to be believable. If they’re asking these questions or pointing out these flaws, then it’s because they don’t find it believable - and that means you have a problem to fix.
Another foot-shooting response is “you’d just have to read it to understand.” People don’t want to read it to understand; they want to understand so they can decide whether they want to read it.
If you’re not ready to answer questions and account for plotholes, you’re not ready to share your story.
Also, take a look at:
Plot & Story Development Questions
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, And When It Isn't