The Zen of Summary
Here are the collected recommendations since June 2002.
The Zen of Summary > Version 1.0
- The Zen of Summary (or the art of saying what you must, and omitting the rest)
- An opinionated rant by Rae
- Summary. The word strikes fear in the heart of every good fanfiction author; after all, the success of your story may hinge on a few short sentences. If this sounds over dramatic to you, then read on, because this article is for you. Sadly, many authors have yet to realize how important a good summary is. Unless you’re prolific and successful enough to have a recognized name within your fandom, the summary of your story is your only weapon against being lost in the crowd. Most of your target readers are busy people who know what they like, and what they don’t want to waste their time on. A good summary will determine whether or not a potential reader takes the time to read your story, or ignore it completely, without ever following the link to the actual text.
- Separate the Author’s Notes from the Summary.
- The most important thing to remember when summarizing a story is what you are summarizing.
Your summary should never double as your author’s notes, ever. Consider this summary: (Note, all examples are actual
summaries taken from Fanfiction.Net, but from another fandom, to help prevent identification and embarrassment)
- “Don't have one yet. Going to be the sequel to Things Change, probably need to read that one first. Rating is just to be safe.”
- Now, unless I’ve read “Things Change,” and remember it fondly, what about this summary compels me to read this story? The author has shown a considerable amount of apathy in neglecting to summarize his/her work, which makes me question how much time has been spent writing this story. Also, because the rating referred to is PG, mentioning it is superfluous.
- Always refrain from mentioning unnecessary things such as ratings; that this is your first story; and most importantly, never mention that you want reviews! These things can have an important place in your author’s notes, but never in your summary. Look at it this way - you have a limited amount of space with which to capture your potential reader’s attention. Asking for reviews is a moot point unless you’ve enticed someone to first read your story. Also, I have a particular dislike for the phrase, “Plz. R&R,” which I know is shared by others. Using cute abbreviations in your summary makes me worry that you’ve also used them in your story. Be aware that readers make judgments on the quality of your writing based on the writing used in your summary. This brings me to my second point:
- The most important thing to remember when summarizing a story is what you are summarizing. Your summary should never double as your author’s notes, ever. Consider this summary: (Note, all examples are actual summaries taken from Fanfiction.Net, but from another fandom, to help prevent identification and embarrassment)
- Use the same quality of writing in your summary as in your story.
- “Okay, this is my first fic so please don't flame me! I am not good at summeries, but just R&R! please! ^_^just to tell you my chapters are really short but I spend a lot of hard work on them.^_^”
- So, what does this summary tell you? Not much about the actual story, to be sure, but there are also some very obvious spelling and grammatical errors. If you are ever unsure about the spelling of a word in your summary, copy/paste it into your word processing program and run a quick spell check. Nine times out of ten, an author who makes simple grammatical mistakes in their summary will make the same mistakes in their story. If you are that tenth author who was just half asleep when they finally posted their opus, don’t let a poor summary deter readers! Re-read what you’ve typed into that little box or email, and make certain that it makes sense!
- Now that I’ve addressed a couple of basics of what makes a bad summary, what makes a good summary?
- Find a balance between revealing too much and too little.
- Use suspense to entice your readers.
- “When a young female assassin shatters the peace of a Crystal Tokyo night, no one is safe from the aftershock...”
- “His mission: To kill her. His weakness: Her. A black chess pawn cannot play against another black pawn.....or can it?”
- Interested? These authors have chosen to leave much of their stories to the imagination, but have
done a fairly good job of making you wonder about it. Curiosity can be a powerful draw, but be warned that some readers like
a bit more information before committing to that mouse click that delivers your story to them. Unless it will spoil a
surprise, it usually is to your advantage to provide some information on characters, setting, timeline and context. Sadly,
it’s nearly impossible to find a good example of this. Using the second summary as a guide, and applying it to The Matrix
fandom, here’s how I might re-write it.
- “Neo’s mission: to kill her. His only weakness? The same woman he’s been ordered to destroy. A pawn cannot turn against it’s own queen. . .or can it?”
- I find a summary like this to be far more interesting. It preserves the suspense of the original
summary, but adds just enough context to make a reader even more curious. Many readers dislike Original Character fics, or
only read fics written about a certain character. Nearly every reader prefers to know ahead of time if you’ve chosen to
write about someone they particularly dislike, and many will assume that if you haven’t specified, it isn’t worth their time.
Although you may lose a small number of readers who dislike the character you’ve chosen to write about, chances are that
you’ll attract a far greater number of readers than you’ve lost. Also, a reader who is driven away by the fact that the story
focuses on Neo will probably not finish the story once he or she has discovered that for themselves. The flip side of this
strategy is that it is also possible to disclose too much information.
- “Rei falls in love with a young lord from Jupiter, they go to a ball together and the two of them finally tell each other the way they feel. Then the ball is attacked by a woman who calls herself Queen Mau.”
- This author has already spoiled their story for me, so it’s probably one that I’d pass over. A good
rule of thumb is to mention character and context (unless your story is specifically ambiguous about either of these things)
but to leave out plot details. The above summary could be slimmed down to something like this.
- “Rei is falling for a young lord from Jupiter, but will the romance be cut short by a poorly timed attack from the mysterious Queen Mau?”
- By removing a few of the details from the summary, readers will be allowed to discover more of the romance as it happens, but the gist of the summary is still there. We still know who the main characters are, and that the story focuses on a romance.
- Now that I’ve explained what goes on in a readers head while reading your summary, here are a couple more examples, this
time fictional ones, using The Matrix fandom:
- “Switch and Apoc get trapped inside the construct when there is an electrical failure on the Neb. They discuss why Switch is so cold and end up falling in love. Not my best work.”
- First of all, strip away the excess information, story spoilers, and the self depreciation.
Insulting your own story will never attract more readers.
- “Switch and Apoc get trapped inside the construct. They discuss why Switch is so cold.”
- Better, but it needs more suspense, and it needs more finesse. Write it as if you were telling
the story itself.
- “Switch and Apoc are trapped inside the construct, cut off from the outside world, and forced to rely only upon each other. Apoc may be more than capable as a fighter, but he is about to face his greatest challenge yet - a discussion of Switch’s emotions.”
- Here’s another example:
- “My first story ever! Trinity and Neo go for a walk in the park! They’re so cute! Anyway, things are great until Agent Smith (Grr) interrupts.”
- First of all, cut the cute attitude and author asides. Remember that your writing style should
be consistent with your story. This summary makes me envision a story that begins with, “Once upon a time in the magical
land of Matrix.”
- “Trinity and Neo go for a walk in the park. Things are great until Agent Smith interrupts.”
- Much better than the first summary, but this summary, unlike the example using Switch and Apoc,
needs more information. Why are Neo and Trinity going for a walk in the first place, and what sort of interruption is Smith?
Here are three radically different ways this could go.
- “Trying to put their recent problems aside, Trinity and Neo escape for a walk in the park. Things are finally starting to look up for their relationship when Agent Smith interrupts with a very interesting revelation about Trinity that could end the romance forever.”
- “Tired of constant vigilance, and feeling a bit reckless, Trinity and Neo go for a walk in the park. What began as a harmless diversion turns deadly when Agent Smith interrupts their day off.”
- “Celebrating the end of the war, Trinity and Neo go for a walk in the park built in their honor. Enjoying their first glimpse of the sun, they are startled to learn that a message has been received by Zion - from Agent Smith.”
- All three of these summaries use the same basic information - Agent Smith interrupting Trinity and Neo’s walk in the park - but the added details greatly alter what the summary describes. The first adds an emotional context, the second adds the element of danger, and the third changes the story’s timeline.
- I hope that this guide has helped you re-think how you write summaries. Many good Matrix fics are greatly disadvantaged by a poor summary, a trend which I would like to see changed. Don’t spend ten hours on the story and ten seconds on the summary, or all your hard work may go to waste!
- Use suspense to entice your readers.