Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tuesday Tip: Summaries

Creating a good summary is a skill that many writers struggle with. After weeks or even years working on a project, how do you boil it down into one or two sentences? It's so much more than that.

A good exercise to get you in the right frame of mind is to go through a bunch of paperbacks or DVDs. After the reviewer quotes (and, on the DVDs, the bit at the beginning about the fabulous cast/director/producer) you will find a very brief description of what the story is about. The language is usually concise and catchy, especially on the DVDs as they often have very little room for text.

Most of these summaries will follow a simple formula:
(set up the status quo and introduce the character/s) + (identify the conflict)

So let's look at the back of the DVD for the movie Underworld:
"In the Underworld, Vampires are a secret clan of modern aristocratic sophisticates whose mortal enemies are the Lycans (werewolves), a shrewd gang of street thugs who prowl the city's underbelly. No one knows the origin of their bitter blood feud, but the balance of power between them turns even bloodier when a beautiful young Vampire warrior and a newly-turned Lycan with a mysterious past fall in love."

Two sentences. First it sets up the status quo - vampires and werewolves in a blood feud - and then introduces the conflict - a vampire and a werewolf fall in love and carnage ensues.

Note that even at two sentences, this is a long summary at 67 words. An even shorter summary of this could be: "The origins of the bitter blood feud between the Vampires and the Lycans (werewolves) are lost in history, but the war takes an even bloodier turn when a beautiful young Vampire warrior and a newly-turned Lycan with a mysterious past fall in love." (43 words)

If you wanted to focus more on the characters, you could write: "The Vampire warrior Selene has dedicated her existence to hunting down her people's arch enemy, the Lycans (werewolves). But when she and a newly-turned Lycan with a mysterious past fall in love, the bitter blood feud takes an even bloodier turn." (41 words)

There is no hard-fast rule about summary word counts (there are very few hard-fast rules in this business), but I prefer to keep mine under 50 words, same as the author bio.

So, how do you do this to your own work?

I like to first come up with three sentences that encompass the story. The first sentence is the set-up, the second sentence is the conflict, and the third sentence is the resolution. This can sound like absolute crap, no one is going to see it. But I find that this helps me boil down all that prose and side plots and secondary characters until I have just the bare bones of the plot.

Then take those first two sentences and make them interesting. You can keep them as two sentences, or combine them into one sentence as I did in the last Underworld example. You can also make the conflict introduction into a question.

So, if my sentences are "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back" my summary could be "When Boy meets Girl, he knows they are meant to be together forever. But when she leaves him for another boy, can Boy find a way to win her heart all over again?"

The point of the summary is to grab the attention and interest of whoever is reading it, and make them want to find out what happens. That's why you don't include the resolution in the summary. Once you have a catchy summary, you can use it in query letters, on your website, in advertisements, anywhere. Save the resolution for the synopsis, a whole different beast requiring a similar but frustratingly different skill set that we'll talk about in a future Tuesday Tip.

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