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How to Write a Summary

(For stories. No haikus, baby.)

I always did find essays overrated. Sure, they have a certain structure about them – I have been to school and been subjected to the torture of learning how to write letters/reports/expositions/narratives, despite popular belief – but today, I shall go a little off from that structure. The gist of this is to teach you guys (and, for added preppiness, gals) how exactly to write that elusive little summary here on FictionPress. This is not perfect in any sense, so feel free to throw cabbages at me if you find this of no use.

In my English exams, we have a component called Summary as well. We're thrown a comprehension passage of a length up to 1600 words and asked to summarize about 1/2-1/3 of the passage into 150 words. Hard? Just pick out the points, you say? It's not that easy. As a writer myself, I find it hardto write the perfect summary too. Then again, perfection is overrated. Just something that actually reaches out to writers and readers alike is good enough.

With that comes The Question: how is it that some people can write the most beautiful pieces and no one reads them?

The answer is pretty simple. The summary puts people off, or just derails their interest. Some are too bland, some are too grammatically incorrect, while some just aren't attention-grabbing. My summaries are not the greatest things known to mankind – far from it, in fact. They have their weaknesses, but here I am to show you how to improve on yours!

Anyhow, to start the ball rolling…

Sum-ma-ry (suhm-uh-ree)
a comprehensive and usually brief abstract, recapitulation, or compendium of previously stated facts or statements.

-taken from dictionary (dot) com-

Yes. Clap, won't you.


1. Summaries don't always have to carry the entire gist of the story.

Sometimes, summaries can be teasers to what happens next in the story. Take for example They Call it a Cliché (by yours truly):

So he's my twin brother's best friend. The supposedly hot one who gets the girls while I hang out with the loud mouthed, all round idolized jocks of the school. Then he kisses me one night... wait, WHAT?

This doesn't narrate the entire process of the story. In Chapter One, I only introduce the characters and a little plot for readers to get to know the characters and stuff. The summary specifically states that 'him', the brother's best friend, kisses 'me', the 'author' of the story. However, it did not state the names. Who the heck are they then! That's exactly the point.

Some people also list out all the different things happening in their story as a little introduction. This is seen in Lientje46's Sick Cycle Carousel:

This is a story about 16-year old Maria who isn't like your average teenager. What does a car crash, scars, her dad, her ex-boyfriend, her crazy brother, and his good-looking best friend have to do with this? Read to find out…

2. POVs

Of course, in your story, you can have 1001 Point Of Views for all your characters. (Straying off topic for a while, do label the different POVs... unless you want your readers to guess which POV it is, to which I shall keep my trap shut.) However, a summary should always be in the POV of the main person, so as not to confuse readers. I have read a story before and its summary was written in the guy's POV, but the story's main POV was the girl's. It did get the readers confused, so it's advisable not to do such things.

Also, summaries can be written in first, second or third parties' POVs. The usage of names isn't compulsory (see above example), it only adds mystery to the story in particular. You can phrase your summary in such a way that you're a story-teller too. It can be 'This story is about…', like Lientje46's one, which makes it seem as though you're explaining what the story's about to a friend who has never read it before.

3. Redundant statements

What pains me to see in summaries is this:

(It varies.)

1. I suck at summaries, but please R&R!
2. Sorry, not good at writing summaries
3. Chapter 15 up!
4. I just suck.

Uh, ignore the last one, sorry. What I do feel is that authors should not put such things in their summaries. Sure, a one-shot needs to be labeled in order for the reader not to be mislead, but that's another thing altogether.

However, the above mentioned sentences just take up space. For the first and second examples, why must you state the fact that you suck at summaries? Okay, I understand that some people just want the liberty of saying that so that people will understand why the summary isn't too good. But whatever it is, please don't say that, it just gives readers the impression that you can't write as well. As for the third sentence, that's a waste of space too. Who can't see that Chapter 15 is up? They put the number of chapters there, for crying out loud. That isn't too much of a nuisance, though.

This does not apply to 'Complete!', 'epilogue/prologue up', and 'under construction' statements. This is because it actually relates to the story, and the fact that the author sucks at writing summaries isn't. Well, actually, the first statement isn't even necessary now that FP has the status thing at the bar, but whatever floats your pretty little boat. (insert winking smiley)

I have used the statement 'R&R' before in my long story, but I didn't put it in my summary. It makes you come off sounding desperate for a review. If you want, put it in the story A/N; don't waste your summary word limit.

Also, DO NOT write things like 'This is my first fic'. If you want to, just mention it in your A/N too. The point of a summary is to talk about the story itself, not your experience with writing fictional stuff. Talk about the plot! Essays are different because, well, they're scholary works and don't exactly have a plot.

4. Errors?

You might not know this (which is doubtful, if you surf FP regularly), but summaries can contain errors, both in the grammatical and spelling sense. FP summaries have a word limit too (doi, that's why it's called a summary), so please stick to that and not let the summary go on for too long. No one has perfect grammar, but running-on sentences in summaries is a little over the edge. If you read a summary that goes 'He was her brother's best friend the biggest mistake of her life was to think that he'd ever like her even though she was invisible but a one night stand would change all that what will happen to them?' Please, for the love of all that exists on this world, put in the appropriate punctuation marks... or the Punctuation Monster will come after you.

I have noticed summaries which get cut off half-way through the sentence and it just doesn't look good. And for Pete's sake, put a full-stop/question mark/exclamation mark at the end of the last sentence! Also, capitalize when necessary. Do not start off with a small letter, like 'a guy came up to me one day'. Space your sentences apart too, don't let the entire chunk run on with the next sentence directly after the full-stop without a space between. It doesn't look appealing at all. If you lack of space, shorten the summary then.

Talking about punctuation… yes, do note the difference between a colon and a comma because they make a world of difference.

5. Grab the attention of other readers!

As I said before, some summaries are so lacking in the excitement zone, I don't bother to click on the link and read it. Summaries are meant to stimulate the reader to want to read the story, so get their attention already!

a) startling statements

Clearly seen in above-mentioned example for They Call it a Cliché again. Another one would be stroke in a can's Chemistry, which has a very good summary:

He's Adam, she's Eve. How could this not work?

This is a clear cut reference to Adam and Eve from the Bible. It's a fresh idea and it grabs readers' attention, just for its uniqueness. It does not underline the details, but that's fine too. What makes it all the better is that it's a seemingly rhetorical question.

b) usage of extracts from the story (quotes)

A little quote from the story can do good too. I take for example Emily111's one-shot, Let The World Know:

"Please…" I pleaded but he shook his head again. "I'm not doing this anymore. I refuse to." He said with a finality that caused me to choke on a sob.

What I like about this is that through what two people say, the summary carries with it the main idea of the story already. It leaves readers wondering what happened between them and so makes them click to read. Poems can contain snippets of the verses, as well as songs.

It doesn't strictly need to be a conversation between two people though; you can do something like what elephant121 did for her story Love of my Life:

"I was sitting on the passenger's side as the love of my life gripped the steering wheel." Rhapsody is coping with falling in love when her life involves her over-protective brother, Cade, her best friend, Brayden, and the arrogant and cocky Chase Avery.

Attention grabbing? Oh yes.

c) questions

I take for example my old story (which will never see the light of day again), And He Never Did Change:

It was two years ago, and she thought she'd get over him. Now he's come back, and Hayden has to make the biggest decision of her life - to leave or to love?

What's to stop readers from wondering what Hayden will do, and wanting to find out who EXACTLY the him is? Of course, as earlier mentioned, rhetorical questions are a pretty clever tool to use too. You can post a rhetorical question and answer it too; gives a little more oomph to it, as my English teacher says.

d) emotions

Laughter is the best medicine. Take for example Dillusional's Letter Tag:

So you're walking along, minding your own business, not really looking where you're going, and then smack! You crash into someone. How very cliché. He yells at you. You have a temper. This is not going to end well.

It gives a hint to the funnier story inside, and definitely more than that.

As for Drama/Angst/Tragedy stories, sadistic summaries aren't truly needed. I find that the use of descriptive, flowery words in the summaries of sad stories does its job too. Portraying the main character's emotions as he goes about living life is one way to clinch it. An action scene can be used in Action/Adventure stories, and remember, ADJECTIVES ARE VERY IMPORTANT!

6. If you want your summary to be short and sweet…

This is especially true for poems and one-shots. For my one-shot, Maybe You Were The One, I had a one-sentence long summary on purpose which goes like this:

Because he loved her, but never told her.

The danger of short summaries is the tendency to make horrifying grammar mistakes, which are even easier to spot as there's only one sentence. Look out for those! (I'm not sure if you can start a sentence with a connective word...) Also, be sure to mention the main idea of the story too. If not, there's no point in having the summary in the first place. Of course, the less words the better! Startling statements work on that very basis, leaving readers eager to know more.

All in all, summaries are a pain to write, but sometimes, all you need is tips! I suck at summaries is no more, I hope. Some people say the worst part of posting a new story is writing a summary that will allow them to get the number of reviews they want, so here goes. It's always easier to expand the sentence by adding descriptive terms, adverbs etc, but it's not easy shortening one, as my teacher once said. So give it a try! Not the most perfect tutorial on how to write a summary, but hey, I've tried.

Never underestimate the power of a summary! Here we go again…