: The reason for a story summary is to show what is different
about your book (Ref 22
, Ref 23b
, Ref 25b
). What is better about your book than everyone else's (Ref 3
, Ref 16w
)? Why does the agent want to read your
book and not the others in her stack? Remember you're trying to sell
your work, and that means making it stand out. So how do you condense your entire book into two paragraphs or less? Answer: You don't. The story summary is not
intended to describe your entire book. It's intended to provide an introduction
to the core
of your story. Think like a back-cover blurb (Ref 1
, Ref 3
, Ref 6
, Ref 23b
), where the language intrigues rather than summarizes.
: How do you construct an introduction to the core of your story? Focus on the important elements that make a string of sentences into a story
. Here's a five-step approach (Ref 16n
). This isn't the only
way to construct a story summary by any means (Ref 16MM
), but it will help you focus on what's important.
- PROTAGONIST: Introduce the person your story is about. This means characterization, not physical description.
- PROBLEM: Define problem or problems facing the protagonist in the story.
- STAKES: Lay out the stakes (Ref 16FF). What happens if the protagonist doesn't solve the problem?
- CONFLICT: Describe the conflict in the book (Ref 21a, Ref 11d, Ref 17, Ref 26h). What prevents the protagonist from solving the problem?
- TEASER: End with a teaser. This means a cliffhanger, an important decision, a twist, something that will intrigue the agent.
Let's look at each of these five elements in more detail.
: What makes your protagonist tick? What is the character like? Why is the character interesting? Why should the reader care
about the character (Ref 16BB
)? Every story starts with a good character; show the agent why yours is great. Your characterization should be for one main character, or at most two. In the short space available, there is no room to describe multiple characters (Ref 16II
). This may present a problem if you have an ensemble cast, with no one character clearly most important. But remember: you're not describing your entire book, you're introducing
it, and having one interesting, fleshed-out character is better than mentioning five pallid two-dimensional characters. Pick your most interesting character and build the story summary around him/her.
: A story
is not just characters (Ref 16CC
), it's about problems. What problems does your protagonist face? Describe the problems through your protagonist's eyes; make sure to explain why these problems are important to your protagonist
. If it isn't obvious, make sure to explain why
the protagonist is the one tasked with solving
the problem. Invading Huns is a problem, but if the book is about stopping
the invading Huns, be sure it's clear why your protagonist is the right person to do the stopping.
: Why is the problem important to your protagonist? What happens if the problem isn't solved? The higher the stakes, the more critical the elimination of the problem is to your protagonist. The more critical, the more exciting the story. Again, the stakes may
be self-evident, but not always. Make sure it's understood why the protagonist considers the problem important, and what happens to the protagonist
if the problem isn't solved. Invading Huns are clearly a problem to someone
, but if your protagonist is a wandering loner, why does he care
what the Huns do?
: Not all problems involve conflict; conflict occurs when something prevents
the protagonist from solving the problem. What stops your protagonist from solving
the problem? Is it a person? Group? Nature? Himself? All of these? Once more, this may be self-evident--if invading Huns are your problem invading Huns probably provide much of the conflict. Finally, the more conflict the better. Invading Huns are nice; invading Huns, a cheating wife, incompetent general, and deserting soldiers are better. Stories are built on conflict--make sure yours has it.
: Leave the agent wondering what happens next. Your book might have a number of possible "cliffhangers" to use as a teaser. The best and most interesting involve all of the previous four elements: your protagonist, his problem, high stakes, and conflict. Once you have a teaser in mind, make sure the rest of your summary adequately explains
the teaser (Ref 27b
). For example, if the teaser is an important choice the protagonist must make, ensure it's clear why the choice is important, why it's difficult, and why the progatonist must make it. Ending with a teaser isn't strictly necessary; plenty of perfectly good query letters do not. But remember, the reason you're writing this is to make the agent want more
Things to remember
Things to avoid
- TENSE: The standard is to relate summaries in third-person present tense, even if your manuscript is not (Ref 16s).
- VOICE: Your summary is a writing sample, and it's not just your story that can attract interest, but your voice. Let your voice show (Ref 2, Ref 6, Ref 11f, Ref 14b). Strive for tone to let the agent get a feel for the book. This is hard--very hard--to do in such a short section. But it's your voice that sparks interest.
- LENGTH: How long should the story summary be? Some agents love longer descriptions (Ref 18b), some hate them (Ref 19). The average opinion seems to be "a paragraph or two" (Ref 20). In general, the shorter the better. Get your point across while you have the agent's attention. You'll have to work out your own balance between succinctness and specifics.
- SPECIFICS: Mention specifics (Ref 16y, Ref 16GG). In other words, don't describe the plot in vague terms. Don't say "danger threatens." Say exactly what type of danger. Don't say "he is forced to make a decision that will change his life." Say exactly what the decision entails and why it will change his life. Remember you want to make your book sound different from every other book. The specifics are what does that.
- LOGICAL CONNECTIONS: Include logical connections between events. Why do events happen; what causes characters to act the way they do? This is the difference between a story with a plot and a list of facts (Ref 13b, Ref 16z). Don't make this section just a summary of events (Ref 25b, Ref 16HH). Connect events together so it's clear why your protagonist takes the actions he does.
- VERBS: Make your protagonist active (Ref 16m). Look at the verbs in the story summary: do they portray your protagonist as initiating action? Or do they portray your protagonist as being swept along by events? Avoid verbs that are passive and weak, replace them with strong, active verbs.
- SETTING: You'll probably want to mention the setting of the story. A story taking place in 17th century Scotland has a different flavor when transported to modern-day New York.
- EXTRANEOUS DETAILS: Get to the plot--no extraneous details (Ref 13b). Don't make your summary sound like a list of details and don't include a specific detail because it's in your book. This might sound like it contradicts the "mention specifics" point above, but it doesn't. Specifics should be included to explain the core of your story--the important plot points. Extraneous details are those that don't relate to the core story. If your protagonist's red shoes are central to the plot, they should be mentioned; if not, keep the extraneous detail out.
- TOO MANY PROPER NAMES: Keep new terms and names to a minimum (Ref 3)--ideally two or three. It's hard for the reader to keep track of too many proper names, and you don't want the agent to be confused.
- FIRST PERSON: Summaries (and synopses) are seldom written in first person, even if your novel is (Ref 16s). Third person, present tense is standard.
- CLICHES: Avoid cliches (Ref 11g, Ref 16b, Ref 16HH). It's too easy to describe your book with an overused phrase. What's worse, cliches, by definition, make your book sound like every other book in the world. Remember, you want your book to sound different and interesting.
- TOO MUCH BACKSTORY: Keep backstory to a minimum (Ref 16DD, Ref 16KK). Backstory isn't what's interesting about your book: what's interesting is the characters and the problem and the conflict. A little backstory is fine, particularly to describe setting or characterization, but don't overdo it. This is particularly a problem in SFF, where authors think they need to put world-building into the query, so be careful: focus on story (Ref 16LL).
- "FINDS HIMSELF": A special case of a weak verb. If your protagonist is continually "finding himself" in situations, this implies a particularly passive, boring protagonist. A pet peeve of mine.
- DESCRIBING TECHNIQUE: Describe your story, not your book. Avoid phrases like, "the book opens with," or "the protagonist is named..." (Ref 16NN) That emphasizes how you wrote the book, not the story in the book. It's more immediate and intriguing to tell what happens in the story.
- THE ENDING: Don't give away the ending (Ref 16r). Remember the story summary is not supposed to describe the entire book, and it is supposed to be enticing and suspenseful (Ref 16EE). Giving away the ending is a sign you're describing too much of the book.