Summaries are like the vanity license plates of Fictionpress. You have a limited space to state the entire meaning of your life...er, story. And if you think to hard about summarizing you life...er, story...in seven letters or twenty words, you may go nuts. I know we're the Twitter generation, but still-the entire meaning of your life...or story. This is the kind of pressure that breaks people. And it can also be disappointing to readers, too, to scroll through an endless feed of awkward, vague, or confusing story summaries.
To do my part to avoid any more insanity on Fictionpress, I present my own ideas on how to present your work.
I should note that the ability to summarize things is one that will be demanded of you for the rest of your life. Even though all your English lit papers told you not to summarize the story, the fact is that when English PhDs write their papers that are just glorified book reports, they have to summarize those papers in an abstract. And when you go to a cocktail party and try to impress the bigwigs and hope to get a job or close a sale, you'll need to have a summary (of your life story). That's called an "elevator speech," because you're supposed to get the main points across in 30 seconds or less, basically the time your elevator reaches the right floor. Also, once you finish your magnificent story and present it to the publisher who will print it and make you millions, you need to present it with a synopsis-a complete story summary. You'll also have to prepare a 1-paragraph pitch hitting the high points of your story, and perhaps also a promotional 'blurb' to draw readers in*. You don't have to love it. You do have to do it.
5 W's, and H, and Something of Interest
You know what I'm headed at-ground the reader by letting them know the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Now, I don't expect you to use all six of those plus the seventh interesting tidbit (more of that later). Instead, aim to use the three most important for your story. These change from genre to genre and story to story. In fantasy and science fiction, what and sometimes how are important. In historical fiction, when and where are important. In biography, who is important. In baseball, what is on second.
I'm very sorry, I couldn't resist.
Now, look at the summary I used for this essay:
In this essay (where), I (who) explain how a summary can be made to draw in the most attention with the most information about your story (pretty long what). You can use up to 255 characters in a summary-make them count!
That tidbit at the end is a cute something that doesn't really have to do with who/what/when/where/why/how. Consider it as a 'Wait! There's more!' kind of message, or in this case an interesting fact that has to do with your story or essay. It can also include things like warnings (language, slash, gore), offers to return reviews, or information about length (one-shot, part 1 of a trilogy, etc). Try to get your three W's into one sentence, the first, if it isn't too clumsy. The interesting tidbit (or tidbits) come/s after.
For stories, try to suggest not only who is doing what, where, when, and why they're doing it-consider making your How an explanation of How what they're doing is difficult and interesting enough to make a story of. "On August 1, 2011, Mary Grace went out for pizza. It had pineapple on it" might tell me who, what, and when (plus an arguably 'interesting' tidbit), but it's not gripping narrative. Show some problems, give us a challenge, create some suspense. "Mary Grace went out for pizza. But on the way, she uncovered a murder" is much more interesting. Or better still, "Mary Grace's small town is thrown into disarray when she uncovers a murder-and the hotshot new journalist at the local paper is convinced she's the killer, launching a smear campaign that may ruin her life!" (This, by the way, fits into the Fictionpress summary limits).
The fact is, the example I gave above isn't really necessary for most essays. Essay summaries only need to contain one thing: the point you're trying to make. 'In this essay, I explain why I am pro-life'. 'This essay talks about my day at Franklin College'. 'Child slavery is real and we need your help to stop it!' Adding a persuasive and interesting fact encourages people that your essay is worth reading, as does an explanation of why you should be listened to (in fact, be careful of mentioning 'I' in essay summaries unless you are going to use your personal expertise and experience to back up your points). You can always put a who/what/when/where/why or how in your title, as in this case 'How to write a summary'.
You can also use funny titles like 'This is My Life- Help!', 'Civil Obedience and You', or 'Snakes, Planes, and Censorship'. Showing that your writing is fun to read will encourage people to take a look.
Back to Stories: Summaries Using Quotes
Quotes are another way to show your story is fun to read, but they're also a dodge to get out of writing a summary you're too chicken to write. So long as you accept that, go for it. Good guidelines for using quotes from your stories in the summary are: make sure they are interesting and relevant, they answer at least one of the W's, and they appear in the first three chapters. Otherwise the reader is left wondering when that quote is coming in. It's like when a movie trailer shows a scene that was left on the cutting room floor. And/or shows the death of the hero's sidekick and then expects you to be surprised and dismayed-so watch out for spoilers, too.
Final Cautions and Farewell
I have received a lot of comments about the fact that people are sick of the 'I suck at summaries' summary. And...well, it's pretty obvious why. We don't care much about your summary-writing ability, we care about your story-writing ability (though lack of one says poor things for the other). Also, don't have a 'mystery summary' like 'click and find out what this is about!' That's putting a lot of faith in people feeling lucky, punk.
If you're having a lot of trouble writing your summary, it may indicate a problem with your story. Like, maybe it's lacking a plot. That can happen. Fixing your summary at that point is no longer your main concern; sit down and get some red ink splattered! Make a 'placeholder' summary as best as you can, showing off whatever parts of your story are not a disaster area undergoing reconstruction. Maybe your characters are still likable (this can be shown in 250 characters with the right details) or your prose is worth reading just because of your fun, creative sentences (that's where quotes come in).
If you change a hefty part of your plot or something, be sure to change your summary too. I mean, it should be obvious, but...
For that matter, feel free to tamper with your story summary for as long as you both shall live. I have a published book, and I still give a different blurb on my blog than there is on the Amazon page, because I decided the Amazon sales text could be made sharper (because I went with a small press, I wound up writing all my promotional text. Not having to do this is one of the perks of a big publisher. On the other hand, my small press didn't ask for a story synopsis. You have to pick your battles, I guess). And if you're about to use it to make a really important pitch, do ask somebody else, if only a random stranger in the elevator with you, to take a look and point out non sequitors, grammatical errors, and any unintentional puns that may have crept in. Your close-to-perfect summary is already brief and to the point, so this shouldn't be an arduous favor to grant.
*As of 3/2014: More on these blurbs, along with information from this essay-plus a whole lot more-has now been published in my book, The Starter Guide for Professional Writers. I'll keep my plug short, but if you want to find out more about the book, which is jam-packed with information to help new writers with improving and publishing their work, please do check out my profile!