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Craft Lesson: Writing a Novel Summary

Q: What is the difference between a synopsis and a summary?

A: I have no idea.

Some writers believe they are interchangeable, others think the two are meant to capture different information and are intended for different audiences. There is guidance about structure and word count of these outlines. There are dozens of examples online, experts who coach writers in preparing these things, but I cannot glean conclusive definitions of either.

I suppose one way to approach it is to prepare an outline for yourself, as writer. You can make it whatever you need it to be. Then, you can customize and modify it if someone (an agent, editor, publisher) requests it.

I’ve resisted writing summaries until the work is done, partly because my novels often surprise me. I don’t always anticipate what will happen or what a character will do. If I adhere to a summary (or synopsis or whatever), I worry I’ll force my plot. And I don’t like writing that way.

However, I am currently working on a novel in which I know what will happen. It has a very specific trajectory even as some of the pieces of the story are fluid and malleable.

To write a summary for this novel, I began with an outline, which was more for my benefit than anyone else’s. From there, I was able to craft a 250-word summary (or synopsis or whatever) that I’ve used to talk about my novel. It was a good exercise in determining which parts of the plot are important to the total, which characters need to be featured and what makes the story compelling to a reader (and sellable!).

If you read the jacket copy of your favorite novel, what do you notice? How is the entire narrative condensed and captured? Likewise, if you read reviews of the novel, what did the reviewer notice? What did they think the story was about?

In my reading and research, I discovered a bit of a formula for preparing a summary of the work. Still, the result can be as robust or vague as the writer believes is necessary, while still being an authentic representation of the piece.

In my MFA program, I took courses in screenwriting, which taught me about beats. Essentially, a beat is a scene, and a beat sheet is a plotting roadmap. So, I used this concept to formulate my outline, and the summary grew from it.

I should note the sample plot I use here is terrible and totally ridiculous. It’s meant to be illustrative, not illuminative!

1. The status quo.

Imagine your protagonist in a scene that precedes the conflict. It may (briefly) describe setting, an important relationship, her mental state.

For example:

It’s 1984 and Susie Jones has set out on an epic adventure with her best college girlfriends. The six of them pile into a van set to drive 2,800 miles across the country. They have no plan, no map and no idea what’s to come.

2. The “theme”

Try to sum up the story in a single sentence.

For example:

This trip is her chance to break free, blaze her own trail, prove to herself that she is worthy and capable.

3. The conflict

Give the reader a hint as to the central conflict of the story. How is your protagonist going to be changed?

For example:

Susie had been eager to escape her stifling family, particularly her abusive father who always made her feel inferior and worthless.

4. The catalyst

In the story, something happens that propels your character on a journey that changes them. What is it?

For example:

When a car accident strands the women in Lubbock, Texas, they learn what each of them is capable of. Susie realizes she cannot trust everyone, and she must figure out her allegiances and her own strengths, as her life depends on it.

5. The choice

This may not be the “right” decision, but faced with your named conflict, s/he must do something to change her circumstances.

For example:

In the middle of the night, Susie makes the decision to leave her friends to hitchhike back to Virginia.

6. The perspective

Your protagonist may be introduced to a character or an experience that changes his or her perspective, gives them an idea or helps them towards self-realization.

For example:

She is picked up by a vagabond family of four, who have been on the road for ten years. Susie instantly bonds with Margie, their oldest child, who is wise beyond her years and shows her what it means to be both creative and resourceful.

7. The new reality

Why does this new experience and/or person matter to the story? To the protagonist?

For example:

Susie begins to feel safe and comfortable with this family, believing she has escaped from danger.

8. The stakes

Explain this new or expanded threat. Will the protagonist rise to the occasion to become the “hero,” or will s/he abandon the cause?

For example:

But Susie is getting farther from home, heading west instead of east. At a rest stop in Phoenix, she spots the van, now driven by an older man, and only four of her friends in the back. They appear stricken and Susie wonders what has happened. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she approaches the van, but the man accosts her, striking her and tossing her into the van with her friends. He speeds away, holding the five of them hostage.

9. The (temporary) defeat

Defeat may come as a change in circumstance or in her outlook. Paint her situation as hopeless or her despair as terminal.

For example:

Susie learns the sixth friend had turned against the others, accepting money from the old man to kidnap the others into forced prostitution. Susie’s fear of men and her lack of self-confidence paralyze her.

10. The turning point

Perhaps a new character is introduced, or new circumstances emerge, or a new piece of information is learned that gives the protagonist her bright idea / boost of confidence / nudge in the right direction.

For example:

As the man drives the friends to a motel in the middle of nowhere, Susie notices a truck abandoned on the side of the road and she gets an idea.

11. The denouement

It isn’t necessary to give away the ending, especially if the purpose of your summary is to compel someone to read the book. However, think about how to close out the summary, so it feels complete.

For example:

Susie escapes her captor and finds her way back to the abandoned truck. Using the ingenuity Margie taught her, she repairs it. As she drives back toward the hotel to rescue her friends, Susie celebrates her own victory. Now she knows just how strong and capable she is.

Remember, it’s up to you how much information you convey in this summary. If the piece is plot-driven, focus on events and circumstances. If it’s character-driven, say more about the protagonist or the central relationship(s) in the story.

I encourage you to relentlessly revise it, too, just as you would the complete work. Send it to a few friends and ask:

• Would you read this book?

• Does this make you want to read more?

• What do you think is the central idea or theme of this story?

• Does it give too much away?

• Does it not tell enough?

• How do you think this story ends?

Good luck!

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