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5 Stages of Writing Summaries

Ah the story synopsis, a most dreaded task among even the most seasoned authors. How are we to be expected to take our 40-60-80k word master piece and file it down to nearly nothing? It feels like murder and as with any loss we must go through all the stages before we can come out the other side with something resembling a decent summary of our work.

1: Denial

Do I REALLY have to write a summary?

Sorry, yes. Summaries are how you hook your reader and as miserable a task  as writing them is,  they are often what makes a reader click buy.


If you’re struggling, just know summary writing doesn’t come naturally. Summarizing is a specific and technical skill and using a few tips from back in your school days can really help you out.


2: Anger

Really? Go back to what I learned in school? That’s your answer for me?

So, hostile, Constant Reader, so hostile! Chillax and let me break it down for you.

The key to writing a great summary is to zero in on the main idea of your story. For example, my upcoming novel Lumen Cove is, at its core, a Student/Teacher romance set in a condo complex. Look at that sentence all gross and stark with no nuance. As this story’s mother I am appalled, but it is a necessary evil to get to a down and dirty starting point.


3: Bargaining

Would you please let me add some adjectives? Some imagery? It’s important the reader knows that the main character has a lot of man pain so I definitely should add his childhood trauma to the summary, right?

No. Sorry, but no. While you don’t want your summary to be a total non-descriptive snooze fest, you cannot be a Wordy Wanda here. This is where taking your drop-dead main idea and adding a few more salient ideas from your story is integral.

Summaries are generally written in third-person present tense no matter what tense or point of view the book itself is written in. Some worthy details to include are setting, main characters and the major conflict in your plot. Omit any secondary characters, subplots or minor events.


[su_quote]On the Mobile Coast in the tiny town of Lambency, Alabama there’s a condo complex that has managed to preserve their little piece of paradise for over 40 years. Lumen Cove is home to families and snow birds alike but they all have one thing in common: they love being in everybody else’s business.

STEM whiz Kelsey Charming is struggling to manage her senior year of high school, her newly appointed spot in the homeowners association after the death of her grandmother and her absentee father that is not so absent now that there’s potential rental properties at stake. Add in a slew of advanced AP classes, including English with the most difficult (and hottest) teacher in school and Winter Cotillion right around the corner Kelsey is feeling the pressure. Can she juggle new responsibilities and a secret that could destroy her life and another if it got out?

Alex Danvers is perfectly happy with his bachelor lifestyle. He’s content with his job as an English teacher at Lambency High, lives for taking his sailboat, the Echo Delta, out on the water and finally has his condo and rental property at Lumen Cove renovated. But his world is about to be turned upside down when he’s talked in to helping the school STEM prodigy make it through his Senior AP course. Add in an unexpected visitor from his past, a secret that could ruin his career and a literal life and death choice and Alex is brought to the brink of just how much he can handle.

Living in such close quarters is bound to bring on some drama, but the residents of Lumen Cove are about to get a dose that will have them talking for years[/su_quote]

Whoa whoa whoa,, hold your horses there Dianne. That’s kind of long I thought you said-

NO ONE IS PERFECT CONSTANT READER JEEZ. But it brings up a good point. Your first crack at your summary won’t be perfect. You might not be highlighting the main idea of your story in the best way. It’s possible that you’re giving information irrelevant to the main conflict or it’s simply just too damn long.

4: Grief

So you’re saying I have to summarize my summary? Just how short does this have to be? How am I supposed to lose so many important details and still capture readers? I don’t think I can do this.

Chin up, here is where we get to the good stuff. Ideally your summary will be between 150 or 200 words. Pause. Breathe.

As a self-described Wordy Wanda this is damn near impossible for me but it’s still a goal I strive for every time. This is the point in the summary process where you must be absolutely ruthless. A good beta can be vital here. We know how hard it is to kill our darlings. Here is how Lumen Cove’s summary looks after some help from a few of my tireless betas.

[su_quote]In the tiny coastal town of Lambency, Alabama is Lumen Cove Condos—a little piece of paradise, home to families and snowbirds alike. But they all have one thing in common—they love being in each other’s business

18 year old, STEM whiz Kelsey Charming’s senior year should be all about fun and memories, but Kelsey is feeling the pressure and struggling to manage the mounting responsibilities in her life. When Alex Danvers, the hottest teacher in school, agrees to help her pass his AP Literature course to stay eligible for the town scholarship, an innocent arrangement turns into a not so innocent affair. Now, Kelsey must juggle all her new responsibilities…and a secret that could destroy her life and his if it got out.

Alex isn’t the type to take on a project student but he never expected his world to be turned upside down by it. The more time he spends with Kelsey, the less he’s able to deny his growing attraction to her. Add in an unexpected visitor from his past and a literal life and death choice and Alex is brought to the brink of just how much he can handle.

Living in such close quarters is bound to bring drama, and the residents of Lumen Cove are about to get a dose that will have them talking for years[/su_quote]

Don’t have a beta yet? No problem. Try a template.

Story consultant, Michael Hauge, has coached writers, producers directors and stars on the development of such projects as I am Legend, Hancock and The Karated Kid. His novel summary template that might be the jumping off point you need to get a fantastic summary.

Michael Hauge’s Novel Summary Template

When hero who empathy/setup, is opportunity, s/he decides to new situation/preliminary goal. But when change of plans s/he now must outer motivation/primary goal but hero’s plan as well as second goal. [NOT a necessity, except in most Romantic Comedies] in spite of the fact that outer conflict.



[su_quote]When Kelsey Charming, the school STEM whiz needs help passing an AP literature course to stay eligible for the town scholarship, she ends up paired with Alex Danvers the hottest teacher in school. Now she must navigate the terrors of 18th century British Lit with the added distraction of Mr. Danvers’ piercing blue eyes. When an innocent arrangement turns into a not so innocent affair, Alex and Kelsey must juggle their growing passion for each other and a secret that could destroy both their lives if it got out.[/su_quote]

This is definitely a workable summary option for me. The format kind of forced me to use some very romance-y trigger phrases (“Piercing blue eyes“ anyone?) I wouldn’t have opted for on my own. This template is a great place to start if you just need something to get you going.


5: Acceptance

Your summary might not hit every item on a Summary Best Practices list but that’s okay.

My first shortened summary for Lumen Cove is 223 words but I feel like it does a pretty decent job of getting my point across without being too wordy. I like that the templated summary forced me to write something that might be a little more eye catching for my genre but I would want to tack on the opening and closing sentences of my other summary just to tie in the community aspect of the book. While it may not be the main focus of this novel, it is what the entire series will be based around.

As long as your summary identifies the main players and the conflict in a short and succinct way you should be good to go.


Do you hate writing summaries? What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned throughout the process? Comment below or @ me on twitter @dianneinwriting

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