The Vengeful Polyglot

How to Not “Suck” at Summaries: A Guide for New Writers

Posted on: June 2, 2011

Anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time on a fanfiction archive such as FanFiction.Net has probably come across the very common fic summary, “I suck so much at summaries, sorry! Please read and review!” or any of a hundred different versions thereof. It’s everywhere. In every fandom, for every pairing, for fics that are canon, AU, it doesn’t matter – and more importantly, it doesn’t state any of that information right there.

Therein lies the very problem with this sort of non-summary: it doesn’t summarize. Though I can understand well the self-consciousness of new authors who sometimes use this sort of summary for their fics for lack of a better idea, hopefully this column will help to remedy this influx of somewhat confusing summaries and help authors to be more confident in putting together their two or three sentence “hooks.”

That might seem like an odd word to use to describe a summary, but especially in an online archive where each fandom may have thousands or even hundreds of thousands of stories, your choice of summary is what can make or break your chance that a reader is going to click on it. It’s hard to grab a reader’s attention by asking them to read your story out of pity, which is more or less what saying “I suck at summaries!” seems to mean to the community. People want to be interested, to be grabbed by the premise of your story. Not only that, but summaries often contain very important information for the reader, information that will determine if the story will be to their tastes or not. Depending on the location, that could include some or all of the following: rating, characters involved, pairing, genre, whether it is canon-compliant or AU, and any relevant warnings such as “character death” or “PWP” (“Porn Without Plot”). Summaries are Important, with a capital I.

So what can be done to improve summaries? How does one come up with an effective and interesting summary, anyhow? One of the easiest places to start is to take a look at the examples I’ve just given in the last paragraph. Which of those elements are specified elsewhere (for instance, above or below the summary, as they are on FF.Net) for the potential reader to see? Whichever of these important details are not specified in another manner, describe and put aside for inclusion in your summary. Usually, warnings for things which might be only appealing to part of the overall community (such as more hard-core “squicks,” or material which is far enough from the norm that it could be extremely disturbing to some people) go in the summary, along with the pairing(s), if there are any.

There can be exceptions to this, however. You always want to give your reader enough “set-up” information that they can decide if they’ll like the story without giving away the entire plot. For instance, if the main point of your story is a surprise pairing which will only be revealed later on, it is okay to not specify that exact detail in the summary, though it is usually considered common courtesy to state what type of pairing it is (i.e. male/female, male/male, or female/female, or other combinations of relationships) as people have different tastes in that respect. There are definitely times where leaving some information out of the summary can be a good thing. In general, though, unless you have a special case, you’re going to want to give them as much “non-essential” information as you can.

This, of course, is at the heart of many people’s problems with summaries. How does one decide what is important? How does one take a 5,000 word one-shot – or worse, a long, chaptered fic – and synthesize the interesting bits into one or two sentences? Personally, I break down the fic into what is essentially premise, and what is actual plot development. Usually, most of the first chapter (or a couple of paragraphs, in terms of a one-shot) is dedicated to “setting the scene” of a fanfic; where the characters are, how they feel about each other, and what the main problem or issue the fic is going deal with is. If possible, take the parts of that premise for your fic (what, if asked, you would say was the main beginning action of the story) and slim it down to a sentence or two.

A good example would be, in a fic about two characters that dislike each other being forced to work on a project together in school, you could say just that in the summary. There’s no need to go any deeper than that, though you could phrase it a bit more creatively – anything past that point isn’t set-up, it’s the consequences of the set-up, or the plot. You should be careful to not reveal much plot to the reader before he or she actually sits down to read the story or it won’t be exciting for them.

Once you have the premise narrowed down to one or two sentences (it is usually okay if it is over-simplified a bit, just try your hardest to make it sound engaging and interesting), gradually incorporate the other information about the story you set aside before where it makes sense. What you should wind up with is a reasonably effective summary!

Don’t be afraid to ask your beta reader (or your readers in an Author’s Note) to look over your summary as well as your fic – it’s a package deal! If you work on trying to make them better, they will become stronger and stronger. I can promise you this, if you try to you will come up with a summary that’s much more of a hook than, “I suck at summaries, please look inside!” Trust me, your readers will thank you for trying.

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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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