How to Summarize a Novel image

Speaking as an author, what’s the number one question people ask you about your writing?

For me, that question is, “What is your book about?”

It’s often a puzzlingly difficult question to answer with any sort of brevity.

It sounds nutty, doesn’t it? I wrote the darn thing, after all, so I should be the one best suited to summarize it.

But the truth is, books change and evolve over the writing process.

You might start out with a concise concept, but as you add to and deepen your story, as its themes and characters grow more complex and fluid, your original “elevator pitch” can get swallowed up by the complicated creature your book ultimately becomes.

This leaves you with a dangerous dilemma: Outlining all the thematic heft and complexity of your novel might make for a ponderous summary, but omitting these elements from your summary betrays the strengths and spirit of your book.

The Importance of a Strong Summary

Nevertheless, being able to accurately and engagingly summarize your writing is an essential skill for any writer.

Your summary is your sales pitch, and while your book’s title and cover might make the first impression on would-be readers, it’s your back-cover blurb that does the heavy lifting of convincing them your book is worth their time.

But an enticing lure isn’t enough to do the job.

No matter if you’re writing book jacket copy, a synopsis for your back cover, a blurb for your front cover, or just a catchy logline you can use for promotional purposes, you’ve got to be able to convey a huge amount of information in just a few words.

A good book summary should tell your reader four key things about your novel:

1. Who Your Main Character Is

And I mean “who” in the cosmic sense.

Don’t just tell us your protagonist’s name. Is he an ultra-suave British superspy? Is he a sensitive soul? Is he a pariah in his family? Is he deaf?

Tell your readers something that will help them instantly relate to your main character—or at least get them excited about his story.

2. What the Central Conflict of the Story Is

In short: What does your protagonist want? And what’s preventing her from getting what she wants?

If your book has a villain, introduce him here.

Use your summary to establish the stakes of your story—but in broad strokes only. Remember, you don’t want to spoil any major plot beats for your readers!

3. The Genre of Your Book

Have you ever picked up a book that described its plot as a galaxy-spanning sci-fi romp, only to find steamy, earth-bound erotica in the pages? Or anticipated a historical romance—only to have a flock of dragons show up?

There are few things more jarring to a reader than a genre bait-and-switch. That’s why it’s important to establish the genre of your book in your summary: even if you believe the genre doesn’t affect the plot in any meaningful sense, your readers still want a sense of what they’re committing to before they buy and read your book.

You can be as direct or vague with this as you like. It might feel clunky to come out and say something like, “In this Western adventure…,” but simple indicators like this go far towards establishing not only genre, but setting, conflict, and atmosphere as well.

4. The Tone of Your Book

If you’d like to be a little subtler, there are ways you can establish the genre of your book by invoking its tone.

We’ve discussed this in the past, but many popular genres of literature are so ingrained in the public consciousness that certain language and writing styles are permanently associated with them. Look to your writing: if you’ve strongly established a specific genre in your book proper, use similar language to describe that book.

Or, in simpler terms: your summary should sound like your book.

If you’ve written a horror novel, your summary should be scary. If it’s a wry comedy, your back-cover blurb should make readers laugh.

Not only does this establish a consistent tone, it gives you a chance to show off your authorial prowess before the book even begins.

How to Write a Strong Summary for Your Book

book summary image

So you’ve just learned what a book summary’s job is—now, let’s talk about what it takes to write one.

And as we’ve discussed previously, there’s not just one kind of summary you can write for your book. There are actually three (well, maybe four—but we’ll get into that soon) major types of book synopses you can write, and all of them perform slightly different functions.

Sound difficult? Don’t worry—we’re here to talk you through the ups and downs of writing each of these summary forms.

The Logline

At two sentences or less, the logline gives the quickest possible answer to, “What’s your book about?” while still covering all its major elements.

But how do you summarize that much content in only a couple of dozen words?

Well, there’s actually a formula for it.

Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, screenwriters have been pitching their projects to studio producers with loglines using a fairly basic formula—and Hollywood’s been using the same formula to pitch the finished movies to the masses.

This formula, perfected by thriller author Graeme Shimmin, works for novels as well. It goes something like this:

In a (SETTING), (YOUR PROTAGONIST) has a (CONFLICT) because of (ANTAGONIST or SOURCE OF CONFLICT) as they try to (GOAL).

And since this will make much more sense if you see the formula in action, let’s create a logline for one of my personal favorite books: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

SETTING: A new house in the English countryside.

PROTAGONIST: Coraline Jones, a bored little girl.

CONFLICT: Coraline becomes ensnared in a trap-like alternate reality seemingly designed to keep her entertained.

ANTAGONIST: A supernatural predator posing as Coraline’s “Other Mother.”

GOAL: Coraline must escape the “Other Mother” and rescue her parents before their life forces are drained away.

Now, simply inserting these sentences into the formula would just create a giant mess. But with a little rewriting and tightening, let’s see what we can come up with:

After being forced to move, a young girl bored by her parents’ monotonous lives becomes ensnared in an alternate reality dominated a supernatural predator claiming to be her “Other Mother.” Using only her wits and bravery, Coraline must rescue both herself and her parents before The Other Mother drains their life forces.

See that? Two sentences and barely 50 words, and it still covers all most important points of the classic novella.

You can use a logline for many things: Pitch your book to agents. Summarize submissions to publishing houses. You can even use a condensed version of your logline on social media to promote the release of the novel.

Try using this formula to create a logline for your most recent book project—then hold on to it, because we’re going to keep rolling with…

The Back-Cover Blurb

If a reader is engaged by your title and cover design, the first thing they’ll do is flip your book over and read what’s on the back.

This synopsis is called the back-cover blurb, the granddaddy of all book summaries—and it’s your best chance to make a good first impression on readers before they even open your book.

A back-cover blurb is a little like your logline, with a few key changes.

For one, you’ve got much more space to work with, about 100-150 words, so cut loose with your language and phrasing. Two, the structure is looser: a blurb still covers many of the same points, but it’s a little vaguer, a little more artful, a little less clinical… a little more “clickbait-y,” if you will.

Let’s take a look at one of the all-time great back-cover blurbs, this one coming to us from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Yes, seriously.

About three things I was absolutely positive.

First, Edward was a vampire.

Second, there was a part of him—and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be—that thirsted for my blood.

Third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.

No matter what your opinion might be of Ms. Meyer’s much-mocked melodrama, you have to admit: that summation kills.

Yes, it’s a quote taken straight from the novel. No, it doesn’t follow the logline formula exactly. But it does its job perfectly.

It sets up the main characters (the narrator and Edward the vampire) and the central conflict (that the narrator is in love with a dangerous monster who might very well want to kill her). And it does so in the narrator’s own voice, firmly establishing the novel’s tone from the outset.

Notice, however, that it doesn’t even touch on how this conflict will be solved. Unlike the logline, your back-cover blurb should cultivate a sense of mystery around the plot of your book. Your summary should ask a question—but only hint at the answer.

Remember, even if you’re not writing a tightly wound thriller, your readers still expect a few twists, turns, and surprises. If they have all the answers going in, they might as well be reading a cookbook.

Editor’s Note: Depending on how your book is designed, the back-cover blurb might not be on the back of the novel at all. If you’re lucky enough to get a hardcover release, your summary will actually be inside the front flap of your book jacket. This gives you a little extra room to work with, but shouldn’t affect the structure of your synopsis too much.

Also: You can use your back-cover blurb (or a modified version of it) for your synopsis on Amazon and other online booksellers. Score!

The Front-Cover Blurb

Only a quick note on this. While usually you’ll want to let your title and lovely cover art do the talking, many authors do include short blurbs on their front covers as well.

Sometimes these blurbs aren’t summaries at all, but snippets of reviews or words of praise from other authors. Sometimes all they do is remind readers of a series’ bestselling status, or that a particular book was written by the same author of another, well-known title.

But every once in a while, authors write extremely truncated summaries for their front covers. In these cases, the blurb isn’t meant to summarize the plot of the book, but rather, to describe the experience of reading it.

Think of the taglines you see on movie posters: the immortal Die Hard was billed as “40 Stories of Sheer Adventure!” which doesn’t exactly summarize the plot, but it does describe the essence of the action classic. The Lord of the Rings has “One ring to rule them all,” while Jaws has “Don’t go in the water.”

Think of your front-cover blurb as your book’s slogan. It’s mostly empty words—but it promises a crackling good time.

You’ve worked hard to make your book a delightful experience for any reader, but unless you can summarize what your precious story is actually about, they just might leave it on the shelf. With this handy guide, you’re well on your way to creating killer book summaries of your own—and spreading the word about your next big novel.

 

And if you’re looking for more information about book promotion and design, your search ends here:

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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.

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