Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Writing a Plot Summary

A popular post from February 2010

By Josi S. Kilpack

As with many elements of writing, a Plot Summary has different definitions. Some people use as an alternative title for a synopsis, other people think of it as the back liner of a book, however, most agents and editors (the people usually requesting Plot Summaries) typically want a quick and dirty explanation about the book. That's it. It does not require the same structure and chronology as a synopsis, but is not meant to ask a lot of questions or come across as "inviting" as a back liner, which is essentially written for promotional purposes. A Plot Summary is just that, a summary of the plot. It is usually short (100-300 words) and while it doesn't necessarily tell the ending, it doesn't simply ask question after question either.

So, how do you write it? Here are some tips:

1) How would you describe your book to someone else? What are the essential elements of your story you want them to know? This is similar to what people call your 'elevator speech', which is based on the idea that if you found yourself in an elevator with the agent/editor/publisher you wanted for your book, how would you tell them your book description between floors--realizing this might be the only chance you have to get their attention? Lucky you gets to write this down rather than be expected to come up with it at a moment's notice.

2)  Be sure to include the essential elements of a novel: Character, conflict, climax. Conclusion, another foundational element, isn't necessary to include in a plot summary because people don't read for the conclusion, they read for character, conflict and climax.

3) Leave out the middle of your story. Most of the time, the middle of any book is about the character getting into and out of trouble. It certainly has it's place in a novel, but for a plot summary it takes away the "punch" therefore should be carefully considered when you're summarizing your events.

4) Keep it tight. Keep your Plot Summary to less than 300--150 words is an average size. You don't need to tell the story chronologically, or get caught up replaying any specific scenes, just overview.

5) Don't be seduced by "Why."  Focus on the who, how, when and where, not the why as that requires details you simply don't have room to include. Of course some why is necessary, but don't let it take the focus.

6) Keep the goal in mind. You are trying to capture and keep their attention only long enough for them to decide if they want to read more. You are NOT telling the story, just telling what it's about. The more focused you can keep it, the better you will meet the expectations of the person who requested your plot summary in the first place.

7) Include author/work information. Be sure the important information about you and the book is included with your plot summary. Typically this is done at the top of the page in the left hand side.

I've included a few plot summaries I found to illustrate how they are often done, you can find more examples on Amazon.com, via book reviews, or through any other online bookselling company:

Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
YA Despotic 
(insert novel word count)

In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year, two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal intimidation of the subjugated districts, the televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem as the 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors, literally, with all citizens required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as the mining distric's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta, the son of the town baker who seems to have all the fighting skills of a lump of bread dough, will be pitted against bigger, stronger representatives who have trained for this their whole lives.
(145 words)

Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck
Historical fiction
(insert novel word count)

Two cousins who had grown up together set off to make their fame and fortune. they begin working on a farm where mischievous things go on. One thing that happens is George finds his cousin in trouble when he killed the bosses sons wife. George sends his cousin off to the woods, to hide. George and the other men go out on a man hunt to find his cousin. In the end, George ends up killing his cousin to save his life.
(82 words)

Ramona Quimby Age 8
Beverly Cleary
Middle grade
(insert novel word count)

  “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” is about a girl in third grade. She started school with a surprise gift from her dad, only to have it stolen by a boy she called “Yard Ape.” One day at lunch she tried to be cool and show off for her friends by cracking an egg on her head and found herself in a big mess. When flu season hit she learned how awful it felt to throw up in class. As time goes on, Ramona and her family solve their problems, and learn to be more caring for each other. They also learn to be more considerate for each other when time alone is needed.
(113 words)

Happy writing!


Leslee said...

Wow, that was great. I learned a lot. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Perfect timing. I need to get working on one of these. Thanks!

Travelin'Oma said...

Thanks for these little seminars! You remind me why I'm writing, how to do it, and why I love it!

Carolyn V. said...

Josi, you are a life saver! Thanks for the info. =)