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The Sum of the Story

Story summaries. The bane of new writers everywhere. Scan through newbie heavy sites like 'fanfiction.net' and one of the most common phrases you'll find is a variation on the apology 'I suk at summaries, sorry, plz r+r!!!' But, are summaries really that hard? Actually, no. They're not as hard as you think.

Let's start with a definition. Just what is a summary? Basically, a summary is one or two sentences that sum up the basic plot line of a story. However, summaries are also a major selling point in getting others to read your story. The title of your story is meant to capture a reader's attention. Titles like 'Small Fry', 'Paradox', and 'Going Scully', these catch your attention. Something in those words make the reader blink. What keeps them from just moving on after that blink is the summary. A story title makes the reader pause, it's the summary that convinces the reader to actually read the story.

So, how do you convince a reader in two sentences or less that your story is worth reading?

Well, step one is presentation. This means spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation. If anything, these are practically more important in the summary than in the actual story. Why? Because the summary is a reader's first impression of your story. You wouldn't want to start a major job interview with a glob of ketchup on your nose would you? Or go on a hot date wearing stained sweats full of holes?

Take a look at these two summaries:

'Drac isback and Buffys gotta kick his @$$!!!'

Now, the same summary, only with punctuation, grammar and spelling.

'Dracula is back. Buffy's got to kick his ass. Again.'

The second summary sounds like the lead in of a more promising fic, doesn't it?

The next step in creating a summary is what you put in it. This is usually what causes people the most trouble. The trick is to remember that the summary doesn't have to be the most moving, grammy-winning summary out there. It doesn't have to be flowery, mysterious or ground-breaking. Save that for your story.

Think about your story for a second. What's it about? What's happening? Strip down the story to it's most basic form. It's main plot. For example, let's devise a summary for Season 7 of Buffy.

So what's happening in BtVS Season 7? What's it about? Well, the main plots are: Willow's recovery from Season 6. Dawn coming into her own. Spike dealing with a soul. Buffy dealing with Spike. Xander trying to move on from Anya. Giles trying to find where he now fits. The First coming after the Slayer Line.

Now, of these plots, which ones have the largest effect? Which ones effect the most characters? Probably, Willow's recovery, Spike's soul, and The First's plan. These are the seeds of your summary. Now, how can these be summed up in roughly two sentences? One way would be:

'Willow and Spike are back in Sunnydale, just in time. The First Evil is trying to destroy the Slayer line for good and Buffy needs all the help she can get.'

An alternate summary could be:

'The First Evil is back and this time It's aiming to destroy the Slayer line forever. Allies old and new join Buffy in her greatest battle yet.'

A little more vague than the first example, but sometimes being vague can be good. It's a fine line though, if you're too vague, you start to sound generic. Then your story sounds like every other 'baddie-of-the-week' fic out there, and readers just won't bother. For example, still using our Season 7 as a summary:

'An old villain returns, stronger than ever. Buffy must pull out all stops to win this time.'

Now, this does sound like a decent enough story. But, this could be an 'Angelus returns' fic for all the reader knows. Or it's Faith, or Adam, or anyone. People might just read it long enough to find out who the villain is, and if it's not who they expected, leave in disappointment. It takes a lot of skill and talent to use a summary like that and keep the readers hooked past the disappointment. If you're still new to writing, chances are you're not that good, yet.

There's nothing wrong with being specific and general. It's when you're being vague and general that problems crop up. The first two summaries were specific enough. They mention the villain, a few of the starring heroes, and the basic plot. When you're just starting to get the hang of writing, this is an excellent formula for your story summaries.

Vague and general can be a killer, especially to a new writer. Writers who've acquired big names in the fandom could get away with a summary like our third example, simply because readers know what to expect from that writer. Joss Whedon could have used that third summary for Season 7 and fans would have been bouncing off the walls in anticipation.

As I said before, there's nothing wrong with being vague. As long as you're not general with it. But how? Ever seen a very vague, but intriguing summary for a fic, then once you started reading, you realized that the first line of the fic was the story's summary? Or the summary popped up in somewhere in the story, as part of the story? This is a cool, but difficult trick to pull off.

To be able to use a story sentence as the summary, that line has to be a core part of the story. It needs to either sum up the basic idea of the story, or be a line that the main plot hinges on. For example, for a Season 7 line, our summary could be:

'From beneath you, it devours.'

This phrase popped up continuously in the first half of Season 7. It's a core phrase since everyone from an insane Spike to a dead Potential uttered it.

Another example from a Firefly fic I wrote:

'Simon's still not used to this ship. Or its captain.'

This summary is also the first two lines of the story. They sum up the story perfectly, as this was a character piece written after the first two episodes had aired. It explored the character Simon trying to find his place on the ship.

For this kind of summary, it is possible to use a character's dialogue. However, be very careful. If you choose the wrong sentence, it won't work at all. Stick with specific and general summaries until you're really comfortable with writing. Then, by all means, experiment.

Sometimes, you may wish to include other information in your summaries. Relationship tags, ratings, begging for reviews, story warnings, etc. So, how much should of this should go into your summaries? It depends on where your story is being housed. Many archives will list these bits of information in specific places, so they don't need to be in the summary. However, for those times you feel you need this information in the summary, here's a break down.

Relationship tags: These are the relationship pairings in the story. When listing relationships, you're best off listing only 'ships that receive major attention in the story. For example, a 'ship listing for the Season 4 ep 'New Moon Rising' (where Oz comes back) would be Willow/Oz and Willow/Tara. While both Xander/Anya and Buffy/Riley feature briefly, it's the Willow-Oz-Tara triangle that's the focus of the episode.

Now, if you're archiving the above example at an Oz/Willow site, you wouldn't have to mention that Willow/Oz is a heavy focus. Given where the story's archived, that's a given. You would, however, need to mention the Willow/Tara.

Ratings: With very, very rare exceptions just about every archive will list ratings, so you won't have to include them in the summary. If you do come across an archive that doesn't automatically list ratings, generally it's best to have the rating right before the summary. It gets noticed faster and makes it easier on people looking for, or avoiding, a particular rating. Using BtVS Season 7 as an example:

'PG-13. From beneath you, it devours.'

Begging for Reviews: This is generally a symptom of 'fanfiction.net' which allows readers to post reviews for a story on the spot, rather than having to email the author directly. As for adding this to the summary, I wouldn't recommend it. Yes, it can feel horrible when you post a story and no one sends feedback. But begging for reviews makes writers come off as desperate. Try leaving it out of your next summary, chances are good you'll still get reviews.

Story warnings: Story warnings are a trickier breed when it comes to summaries. A lot of the newer automatic archives have separate places for warnings, if they're needed. But, the question remains, what qualifies as a necessary warning and what should you keep to yourself?

There are some people who don't want warnings. They don't want to know a head of time that a major character is going to die, or that rape is involved in the plot. However, in general people like to know. Mostly so they can avoid that type of story, but sometimes so they can find that type.

Warnings work best if placed after the summary. They can be placed before the summary, but it tends to take something from the impact of the summary. If a reader reads the warning first, they judge the summary based on the warning; whereas if the warning is placed after, the reader will judge the warning based on the summary. For example, using Season 7 yet again:

'Warning: Character Death. From beneath you, it devours.'

In the above example, the first thing you see is the character death warning. It influences your view of the summary doesn't it? Rather than wondering what this 'it' is that devours from beneath, the first thing that pops into the reader's mind is 'So, who's it going to devour?'

Now look at:

'From beneath you, it devours. Warning: Character Death.'

In this example, you see the summary first. It's intriguing, it makes the reader want to know more. Then, the warning is there. Now the reader has to decide, is the story worth the risk? Does this sound like a good enough story to read, despite the promise of a possible favorite character dying? You're still going to lose the readers who don't want to read a character death story; but by placing the warning at the end of the summary, you gain a chance with some readers. Rather than just seeing the warning and skipping to the next story, they will stop and consider.

All in all, summaries are your story's first impression. You can spend weeks working and re-working your story into a masterpiece, but if you have a sloppy summary, people will assume the story is just as sloppy. The better the summary, the more people will read the story behind it.