The Art of Summary

So it’s Saturday morning, and I don’t want to write Fates or rewatch Fringe until I’m done fully digesting all of the AWESOME that happened the night before, which means...either I’m going to read a book or I’m going to read a fanfic. So, yay, a plan. I hop on over to fanfiction.net and the decisions begin: what should I read? Is it time for an epic reread of Double Agent? Do I want to reread Fortune Favors Fools because Sarah’s voice is going to be harder to nail than usual in Fates 52*?

No, I want something new today, but I’ve read all recommendations from Wepdiggy. Time to search for something new...time to check out the summaries.

And here’s where the crapshoot begins.

People look for books and stories based on a few key criteria:
  1. They’ve read the author before. Chances are, most everybody here is going to race over to read the newest ninjaVanish work because we saw how awesome Chuck and Sarah vs. the Bunker was.
  2. Word of mouth from a trusted author or friend. My hits got a real boost around Chapter 7 or 8 of Fatesfrom both a shout-out in Double Agent and another shout-out in Second Chance. Now I’m on the other side of the equation and paying that forward to other great authors.
  3. An intriguing premise/great summary. If you don’t have a fanbase yet, you have to lure readers in other ways. And no, driving around in an unmarked van and offering candy to strangers doesn’t end well**.
  4. Review count. “Holy frak! This has 200 reviews for 6 chapters! The author must be doing SOMETHING right, I must check this out!”***
So what if you’re just starting out? Nobody’s heard of you because you haven’t, uh, been all that great about leaving reviews on the fics you’ve read? You’ve got your multi-chapter prepped and ready to go, and you want to pull those readers in?

A great summary helps. A great beginning helps more, but I’ll cover that at another time. Today is all about the summary. I’ll start with what doesn’t make a great summary:

1) “First fanfic. Be nice.”

Yeahhhhhh...those words are automatic “pass by” words for me. I know that all fanfic writers weren’t as bad as I was in my first fic, but those words just make me leery. They leave a bad impression of bad writing. It may not be true, but you’ve only got a few sentences to lure me into reading your work (less than three, typically). Don’t waste one on that. Other variations include, “WROTE THIS WHILE I WAS SOOOOOO DRUNK WOOOOO.”

2) Bad Grammar.

If you can’t even bother to put good grammar into your summary, your story is probably going to be riddled with it. Pass.

3) Misspelling a Character’s Name.

Oh. My. God. How am I going to believe you can write credible versions of the characters I love if you can’t even spell their freaking names right?****

4) Soapboxing.

I know that people write fanfiction because they’re having trouble with the show and the way things have gone. Trust me. You can read the first author’s note in Fates to see how Season Three brought that story around. You can rant about it in the author’s notes all you like, but please, please leave it out of your summary.

How to Write a Good Summary:

1) Tease. Don’t Tell.

Maximus can tell you that one of my absurd dreams is to be a promo monkey. I giggle like nothing else during some of the promos for the next week’s episode because the monkeys give just enough away to get you interested and all “WHAT IS GOING ON!” And then you have to wait.

Transfer this principle to writing your summary. Tell them a little bit about what’s going on, but don’t give the whole story away. There’s a fine line to be walked here, as if you’re too much of a tease, you might not draw readers in. But don’t just be like, “This happens and this happens and this happens.” Try to be a little mysterious, if you can.

Some good examples of this principle —
Costas TT – Chuck vs. the Other Super Spy
Instead of being kicked out of Stanford, Chuck was recruited by the CIA. Now, five years later, he and his team are legends in the Agency. There is something missing though. But one mission will bring someone new into his life, a gorgeous fellow agent...
quistie64 — Chuck vs. the Sound of Music
AU. Chuck, nerd extraordinaire, is a man with seven children and Sarah must protect them all from Fulcrum's evil designs. Warning: there will be singing.
KateMcK — A Common Spy Problem
Chuck and Sarah slipped in the shower. Now they have to deal with exes, family, James Bond, a rock star, General Beckman and Casey, on top of the major shift in their relationship.
These were all grabbed from the first page of the Chuck archive on ff.net. See the common trend? All of these summaries give just a little backstory, and an objective of sorts. They say, “This is the universe” and “This is the conflict.” And each manages to do it in a unique and mysterious manner.

2) Be Memorable

Conversely, if you don’t want to do a “plot summary” like those above, a trick is to be memorable in some way. Some people do this very well with just a snippet of the story. For instance, one of my favorite one-shots is Broken Heydar’s Single Vacancy, Dual Occupancy, in which the summary reads, “And you know, you didn't have to join me in here! There were two coffins.”  Another example of memorable, to me, is the sequel to quistie64's Ninja Librarian story, which makes a great joke about a rubber mallet and Morgan.

3) Even if it’s a sequel, give some kind of plot idea.

Don’t just write “Sequel to this story.” I’m getting loads of readers that are no longer starting with Fates(which makes me twitch, but that’s okay. That’s okay). No, instead, they’re skipping straight to To Resist Both Wind and Tide or Fortune Favors Fools. Attention spans these days being what they are, we devour what we discover first, and then move on from that. There’s no way to tell if what “we discover first” is the first story written anymore. Give all of your stories a fair shake. Any way you can draw new readers in, take it!

So those are just a few tips I’ve picked up from over ten years of reading fanfiction, and being really, really picky. If you have any other ideas or questions, please leave them in the comments. We’re all aspiring writers here, or we hang with aspiring writers. Let’s share and share alike!

And would anybody be interested in a “Good Beginnings” post?


* I’ll admit it: I strive to write better all the time because I reread everything I wrote...constantly.

** Not that I know what I’m talking about at all...

*** Please be a better reader than me and review the stories you like. Even if you don’t have anything more to say than, “Man, I really liked this.”

**** Only exception being Come Away with Me spelling Carina as “Karina.”


  1. Nervert25.9.11

    I can't agree enough about not apologizing for your work before anyone's read it. I've done it myself and the truth is, no one gives a damn if it's your first fic. Just show 'em the goods.

    I really have to agree on the grammar too. There's only room for a line or two of text in a summary. It can't be that hard to proof read, can it?

    Also, yes to your last question. And how about a post about bringing readers back to your story after abandoning them for over a month (I swear that's not a comment about 'Fates'; just a comment about my current situation).

  2. Yes to a "beginnings" post. Frankly, I'll read anything you post about writing.

    Suggestion to readers who find a new writer to read: go to their profile page and see if their stories have an order. Frea has this on her profile page. Read the stories in order. If the writer has taken the time to tell you, they think is important and will enhance your reading experience.. You'll do both yourself and the writer a favor if you do that. (The librarian steps off her soapbox).

  3. I definitely agree with this post.

    I know I also generally skip stories with summaries that contains: "I suck at summaries. Please just read."

    And I'm sorry I was one of those people making you twitch. I didn't do it on purpose, I swear! ;)

  4. Anonymous25.9.11

    I read for a living -- well, there's some teaching involved -- so I read rather a lot of things. Lately, that's included some fanfic. (I blame Frea.) Please don't throw things when I say that I was surprised to discover that some of it's damn good.

    But much of it's crap, including stories with intriguing premises, creative plotting, great character insight, or snappy dialogue (though I'll put up with a lot for snappy dialogue). The crap is so prevalent, my time so limited, and my connection to the fanfic community so non-existent, that I make almost all my selections based upon summaries and first-chapter ANs. I'm quite confident I've missed a fair bit of non-crap writing because people didn't follow the advice above.

    If you don't proofread, I won't read. Period. Even if your dialogue is pretty snappy. If you apologize for your work, you shouldn't be publishing it. I certainly won't take the time to read it.

    My only additional piece of advice is probably a subset of "Be Memorable": "Be Literate." I started reading Fates partially because I saw it referenced frequently but mostly because of the Shakespeare. I kept reading for lots of reasons, but the way Fates plays intertextually not only with Chuck canon but also with a wide range of pop- and high-culture narratives has always been central to my enjoyment of the story. You don't have to play games with the Bard to be literate. Maybe a simple Jayne / Casey joke works for you, but showing us your fic as part of a broader context makes you look like more than an impulsive fan.

  5. Anonymous26.9.11

    Interesting comments Frea. I agree with most and I think your logic behind them is solid. I am guilty of one error which is hard to resist sometimes and that is your comment about soapboxing. I will take a look at current story synopsis again and think about re-writing it with that in mind. Not everyone agrees with the writers POV of what was wrong or right with the show so you run the risk of turning a few folks away that may disagree with your POV. Leave it to the A/N where you can maybe explain what you are trying to say and do better in the longer format. Good advice.

    Just tease what the story is about and let the reader get what you are trying to "fix" from the way the story itself.

    Thanks for the tips.

  6. I have to admit that I agree with everything you said and I'll also admit to committing some, if not all of the don'ts. Any of my transgressions are mostly unintentional and of course I hate to think that someone might miss a story that they might enjoy because my summary doesn't hook 'em. Tha being said, I have to admit I've read a story(or several) that had a sucky summary, just because I felt like taking a chance. I find that the first paragraph of the actual story has a much greater chance of hooking me than a shiny, glimmering summary. In the end, what attracts a reader to one story may not work for another reader, which, I guess, just makes us all individuals.      JT

  7. Nervert - I may have to open up that question to the floor, as it's one I struggle with constantly. Sometimes I do a mini-recaplet if I post on the blog, but I rarely do one for ff.net since I've got the guide on the blog and people who read later might not have that six month gap between chapters. Maybe you could try a couple of sentences in an author's note? "Here's what happened. Annnnd action?"

    Quistie - Nice librarian soapbox. I never noticed that lying around the blog. :) Yes, I did put an order on my profile, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that my stories are all named differently (some Shakespeare, a couple of terrible puns, TLC for Ellie). But yeah, you do miss a lot, I think, if you read out of order. However, as an author, I'm so glad you're reading my stuff that even though I'll give a twitch, I'm happy to have you, Crumby. :)

    While anonymous has a point, there is something to be remembered here: fanfiction, for a lot of people, is where we get our starts. My first fiction was original, but I started writing fanfic in my driver's ed class when I was fifteen (it was about Remus Lupin). So sometimes it's our first instinct to apologize, especially when our stuff is going to be listed next to the greats like Lori Summers or Cassandra Clare (in my case). Thankfully, it's also a learning curve and hopefully most of us will realize that apologizing IS an amateur step.

    Uplink, you're welcome. :) I was looking at your summary and thinking, "Hm, don't soapbox," that's a good way of putting that tip.

    Jaytoyz - Trust me, in my earliest days as a fanfic writer, I've committed some of these sins, too. "The ending is a bit fast and I apologize for that. Tell me what you think - trust me, I want to know if it's terrible..." is from the summary of one of my very first stories, actually.

    The thing about writing is that we sometimes can see it as a competition. We've gotta compete against each other, our opponents are other writers. But no, our opponents are ourselves, when it all comes down to it. And the world. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to do everything you can to prove you are serious. That means a good summary, usually means good, coherent Author's Notes, and of course the writing has to be there. And even better than that, the fanfiction realm is a good place to practice, surrounded by your cohorts and peers. So take pride in your stuff. Give it the summary it deserves.

    This motivational message has been brought to you by one of my weekly-allotted Dr. Peppers and this Kettle Corn I'm munching on.

  8. Anonymous24.10.11

    Once again a wonderful, succinct and relatable art of...

    If your willing to take any suggestion as I love your insights into writing through your art of... blogs and as a young person looking to a get a start in writing myself I was hoping in the future you can do a show and tell feature, of course only if you approve, as I would love to see your opinion on it.


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