If You Can’t Summarize Your Book, Maybe It’s Missing Something

Summaries suck. Few come easy to us, and condensing a 300 or 400 page novel into 200 words, especially when you’re dealing with dual protagonists, sounds insurmountable. But even complex stories, like The Hunger Games, can be summed up in just one line if you know what to focus on –

Katniss Everdeen, an impoverished teenager living in the cruel dictatorship of Panem, volunteers for their deadly Hunger Games tournament in order to save her sister’s life.

Notice I didn’t bother with Gale, or Rue, or Haymitch, or the fact that she has to pretend to be in love with Peeta. I didn’t mention the main antagonist, President Snow. I didn’t mention that Katniss shoots arrows or even what the Hunger Games are. I instead focused on who Katniss is – A poor and probably selfless teenager. What does she want? To save her sister. What is the conflict? She volunteers for the deadly Hunger Games.

So what are the Hunger Games? That’s where you can ask your readers to pick up the book and find out.

But try as I might, I had nothing but trouble summarizing Paradisa. Do I open with the world/premise of universal myth? Do I open with character and what Connor wants/who he is? Should I include Clara in there too, as she’s a co-protagonist? Do I name drop specific deities who make an appearance? Do I focus on the external conflict of saving the world from monsters, or the internal conflict of Connor’s inability to trust people?

This was particularly hard in previous drafts because all of Connor and Clara’s goals and obstacles were internal. They learned some crazy stuff, basically volunteered to join the plot for no real reason, and became heroes in a loose, manufactured sort of way. This is why my book was hard to summarize. While I had life and death stakes, my characters were still not the ones leading the story. My story was not about them. And because it was missing this key element, my summary was only ever a rundown of “stuff that happens.”

With this previous rewrite, Connor is forced into the story, forced to choose between a rock and a hard place, forced into facing his demons. His agency leads the entire plot. Something happens that is beyond his control in the opening chapter, and from there, he has to choose between running from monsters forever or becoming a servant of the gods. And that comes with a host of consequences all its own.

Suddenly, my book is easy to summarize. I can open on Connor. I can describe who he is and where he is in life. I can describe how he is viciously ripped out of his comfort zone and forced to be a part of the plot. I can describe a situation that tests his character, and even leaves the audience in a wee bit of suspense (although most people can realize that without Connor joining the gods, we don’t have much of a story!)

If I was to expand past one line, I would also reduce Clara’s role in the summary, as her arc is more of a subplot. I want to focus on the main character, and his conflict, and his stakes. I don’t need to get into the nitty gritty of the antagonist’s motivation, or even his name – I just need to show that conflict is happening and there are forces that want to challenge my hero. I don’t need to run down a name list and description of all my protagonist’s allies – “his sister, an angel, and two Greek gods” would suffice.

Pick the most important thing your story is about and run with it. Hopefully, that thing is character. But even if that thing is a concept or a premise, you should be able to articulate it. If not, perhaps your story isn’t about what you think it is. Or maybe you need to do some retooling to better connect character to plot.

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9 thoughts on “If You Can’t Summarize Your Book, Maybe It’s Missing Something

  1. “Pick the most important thing your story is about and run with it.”—Great tip. Writing summaries and blurbs is difficult, for sure. I recently read somewhere that oftentimes traditionally published books have someone else writing the blurb, someone who may not even have read the book. I’m not sure how that’s possible, because to me, you need the book’s essence to write that blurb, just as your advice suggests.

    • Having an outside party may be helpful, actually – as writers it may be hard for us to step back from what we think is important and get to the bones of it. I know with Paradisa it’s hard not to include a wealth of subplots – Clara’s arc! Hephaestus and Aphrodite’s marriage! Raphael’s brother issues! – or get too detailed about all the world mechanics. I feel bad paraphrasing it in my summary as “a servant to the gods” because it’s not really servitude and it’s not all gods – just one. But I forced myself to think of it in the simplest terms and that’s what caused the least confusion for a prospective reader. Anything more detailed would require an extra two sentences to explain.

      I do think a blurb writer should READ the book though. I can’t imagine them doing very well otherwise.

    • It’s only easy if you have a plot ;) Most great stories can be succinctly summarized. If a summary feels impossible or difficult, there is probably something up with the plot, or with the main character’s relationship to the plot.

  2. Great advice! It definitely can be challenging sometimes. I’m always happy that NaNoWriMo lets you summarize your story on your profile. It definitely lends for good practice.

  3. Pingback: Is all the advice confusing? | jean's writing

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