Summaries: a guide to writing them
For many people, writing summaries is one of the hardest parts of posting fiction online. If you flick through any normal archive, you'll find countless fics - some of them excellent - with poor summaries, or even no summary at all.
This is unfortunate, as summaries are the single most important factor in getting readers to look at your story. Every story needs a title, but how much do most titles reveal about the plot? Pairings are important, but when there's 2,000 other stories out there with the exact same pairing, the readers need a way to choose which one to spend their time on.
Here's a few tips for writing your own summaries. Feel free to contribute ideas, I'll happily add to the guide.
- Always make it easy to find your summary.
Don't put your summary in a big block of text together with a million author's notes, beta credits, requests for concrit, etc. Separate it. On some archives/communities there are specific places for your summary; otherwise, simply give it a new line, and try to highlight it in some way - some people like to italicise their summaries, or put "Summary:" in bold text before they begin.
- Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation.
I'm constantly amazed at how many summaries don't use proper capitalisation of letters, or misspell words - especially characters' names. When I see those summaries, I generally don't even bother to click into the stories because I have to assume they are just as badly written. Use a spell-checker, proof-read the summary yourself, and if necessary ask a friend or beta to look it over too.
- Keep your summary fairly short.
In some ways "summary" is an inaccurate description, because the intention is not to give a blow-by-blow account of what happens in your story. I've found that most of the best summaries I've seen have just 1-3 sentences. Naturally some stories may require more than that but try to keep them as short as possible.
- Give an idea of what the story is actually about.
This is really important - people want to know what they're going to be reading. Try to resist the temptation to write summaries which sound too mysterious. Consider what the central theme of your story is. If you're writing about an arranged marriage, make that clear; if it's a story about someone meeting a long-lost relative it might be a good idea to mention that fact!
Even if you are not generally great at writing summaries, you should be able to manage something - "Georgina is abducted from a crime scene" is just a simple statement of what happens, but it's enough to get people interested.
- Alternatively, explain how the story starts.
Sometimes authors want the main plots of their stories to remain a surprise, or the plots are simply too complicated to sum up in a few sentences. In a situation like that, consider describing how the story begins instead.
For example, the following would be a perfectly good summary, without revealing anything about the main plot of the story: "Arthur woke up one morning to find a packed suitcase lying next to his bed."
- Include keywords in your summary.
If you write a story about a character magically turning into a toddler, then your summary should include words like child, de-aged, 2-year-old, etc. If you're writing John meeting the father he never knew, then for goodness' sake include the word father.
This is partially for search engines - people may search the archive looking for particular themes they fancy reading. However, it's also good for people simply browsing. Often people don't have the time to read every single word in every summary on a page; instead, they scan-read, and including keywords can help to attract their attention.
That said, don't feel like you have to include every single possible keyword, and don't force words into your sentences. If necessary, you can always include keywords at the end, for example: "Tara never realised that raising children would be this hard. Kidfic."
- Mention the main character(s).
This is especially important if you do not have a separate characters or pairings section. Most readers prefer to know who the main character of a fanfic is before they begin reading; many won't even try a story which doesn't involve the characters they love. Certain types of stories may also sound far more appealing with some characters than others.
- Be careful if you use quotes.
I know that some people like using quotes from their stories as their summaries as it gives the reader an idea of the quality of their writing, and witty or intriguing quotes can make people want to check out the story. I've also sometimes seen famous quotes used.
However, think carefully before you do this. Many stories simply do not have a quote which works well. I've seen far too many authors post quotes which give no clues as to what the stories are about - or indeed give a completely wrong impression - simply because they like how they sound. Don't make that mistake. Also, don't use a line from a sex scene unless porn really is the only reason to read your story. (And even then, keep it PG - children may read the summary, or people at work.)
If you're determined to include a quote and don't have one which fits all the other criteria on this page, consider simply posting one after the summary, on a separate line.
- Avoid fandom words and netspeak.
Fandom, and the internet as a whole, has created all kinds of new words. Characters' names have been mashed together to create nicknames for pairings, common cliches and plot themes have been given names, etc. The problem is, not everyone who finds your story will have heard of these words, and they may have difficulty working out what they mean, so try to avoid using them.
- Don't confuse a summary with an introductory chapter.
Just occasionally, I've seen people write "summaries" which are basically guides to what the readers should know before they start reading, full of background information on the alternate universe and histories of the characters. This does not belong in the summary. If you must have an introduction of this kind, keep it separate.
- If you're writing fanfiction, try not to give away spoilers.
There's a large debate in fandom about spoilers, and at times you may need to read the rules of archives/communities you're posting in; however, in general just try to use your common sense. If you're writing for a book fandom and the latest book just came out a week ago, then a summary along the lines of "Ken's reaction after Lizzy broke up with him" is not going to make you loved by all the people who haven't had a chance to read the novel yet and have no idea that they broke up.
- Don't spoil your own story, either.
I realise that this is a difficult area and people have very different opinions on what constitutes a spoiler. I've already recommended that you include the main themes of your stories in your summaries, and generally speaking I stand by that. However, there are times when revealing certain facts will annoy people. Think carefully about this before you begin writing. I once wrote a ficlet where I wanted people to think one character was somebody else until about halfway through the story; if I had mentioned his name in the summary, it would have spoiled that entire surprise.
- Don't replace your story summary with a chapter summary.
I can't count the number of times I've been to an archive or a Livejournal community and seen summaries along the lines of "Chapter 10 - John finally meets Lucy." Chapter summaries can be useful, but please don't use them to replace the existing story summary! Firstly, it makes it unlikely that you'll find new readers; secondly, it risks spoiling the story for them if they do try reading it; and thirdly, existing readers may forget what your story was about in the first place without a good summary to remind them.
- Leave yourself out of it.
Here's a rule it's a good idea to follow: if a sentence involves you, it belongs in the author's notes.
Sure, it's great to know why you were inspired to write the story, but that shouldn't be part of the summary. Sometimes I see people give "summaries" like "I didn't like the end of last week's episode, so I corrected it". What if someone comes across this story three weeks later?
Remember summaries are often reposted by people other than you. What if I want to bookmark your fic, or recommend it to someone else? Do I really have to write my own summary for your story?
Above all, avoid statements like "I'm no good at summaries, but..." or "I'm not really sure if I like this but I'm posting it anyway..." You're supposed to be making me want to read the story, aren't you?
- If all else fails, ask.
There is nothing wrong with asking for help. If you're not sure about the summary you've written, ask your friend/sibling/beta to have a look at it, or post on your journal and ask everyone on your friends list what they think, or if they have any better ideas. You can even ask me if you like, I'm quite happy to have a glance at it (though I won't promise to read your story). Don't feel too embarrassed to ask someone - plenty of good writers have trouble writing summaries.