The Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Great Summary
When you’re a writer, whether you’re doing work for school, a pitch, or a professional project, you may have to write a summary of your work (or of someone else’s work). While this seems like a simple task, a lot of people struggle to take a big idea and cut it down to its most important elements.
When I was in high school, one of the hardest projects we had to write was a 1 page essay. After turning in dozens of 5-10 page projects, condensing my ideas into 1 cohesive page was not easy. But the project was a good exercise.
It taught me the potential to make an argument in a short amount of space.
And it helped train me for a big part of my future job, writing screenplay analysis, which almost always includes a summary of the project.
What Is a Summary?
A summary or synopsis is a condensed version of a larger piece of material. In my usual work, this means the basic overview or plot points of a story. Ideally, if you’re summarizing a fictional piece, the summary will retain some of the emotional elements of the bigger project.
However, it doesn’t have to.
It can be a step-by-step overview and/or it can focus more on the overall emotional elements. I’ll dive into the differences below, but basically, it’s a short version of a longer piece.
A lot of people think writing a summary is easy. It’s not. Taking a 300 page book and turning it into a 1 page synopsis is challenging. You don’t want to leave out key elements, and it’s difficult to figure out what to cut.
That’s what we’re going to discuss here.
How to Begin Writing a Great Summary
Many people will start a summary of a project after the project is completed. Others might be starting a summary before writing the larger project. I tend to refer to that process as writing an outline or treatment.
Here, I’m only going to discuss crafting a summary after the project is finished, but some of these tips will apply in the other instances.
You need the project you’re going to summarize, whether it’s a book, script, article, etc. You then need your writing tools at hand, and you need to have read (or be reading) the material.
When I say you need to have read the material, this can be one of two things. If you’re summarizing something short, you may want to read the whole thing a few times before starting your summary.
If you’re summarizing a 400 page book, it makes more sense to write or take notes as you go along, so you don’t lose any major ideas along the way. This can help with basics like how a character name is spelled, or whether you meet someone before or after a major death.
This kind of detail can be easily forgotten if you wait till after reading the whole book to write your summary.
Tips for Writing a Summary More Easily
- Write while you read. I type 100wpm, and I read really fast. So, I do my summary at the same time as I’m reading the material. Then, I only have to go back over it at the end to cut it to 1 page. I find that, for a 100+ page book, I generally have a ratio of 1 page summary: 50 pags of material, or 1 page summary: 100 pages of material, depending on the complexity of the story. I like to write while I’m reading, because it makes the process faster, and I don’t miss details.
- But, if you struggle to keep your attention on two things at once, I recommend this. Read either 10 pages or 1 chapter, and then write what happened in one or two sentences. Then continue on. Keep your ratio as consistent as possible. This will help with your final word count.
- When you run into an interesting subplot, ask yourself: how does this pertain to the main character’s story? Is it something that’s included for character development, or does it move the whole story forward? Is this something that is necessary to conveying the overall point, perspective, and emotional journey? If you can’t answer “yes” to any of those questions, it might be something you can cut out of your summary.
This process is all especially hard if you’re the original writer of the material. You had a reason you wanted it to be 340 pages, not 1-5 pages. You may not like the idea of cutting out so much vital information in order to create what feels like fluff. I get it! I’ve been there.
To that, I would say this: from a reader’s perspective, I often will read 5-10 books or 10+ scripts a week. If I’m reading and analyzing that many pieces of material, the boss I work for is bringing in at least 5 times that many per week. On the low end, the producer might bring in 25 books or scripts to read every week.
Think about how long it takes to read 5 pages vs 500 pages. It’s a big time difference, right? Giving a producer or publisher or potential reader the chance to visualize a taste of the story, before deciding if it matches their interests, is actually really helpful. Especially in our day-to-day, hectic lives.
My synopsis allows them to grasp the key plot points of the story, understand if it fits their company’s brand, and decide if they want to pursue it further.
I try to incorporate as much of the emotional journey as possible. I believe that’s key to understanding if a story is right for them. If they read my 1-5 pages and like it, they’re likely to read the book or script. If they read it and recognize that it’s too violent for them, they can pass. Or maybe the story is open-ended, where they are looking for something that wraps up the plot neatly.
Knowing that kind of detail in my summary allows them to move on to the next project.
Personally, I understand writers who hate summaries. And I get it: if the person writing the summary isn’t the author, some nuance can be lost in translation. That’s why I try to write as I read – so I don’t lose a key plot point or major line of dialogue that changes the meaning of the whole story.
Common Questions/FAQ About Writing Summaries
Does It Help or Hurt to Include Key Subplots?
If your summary is aimed at a specific niche audience, and your subplot incorporates a key area of interest for that demographic, I would keep it in. If it’s primarily there for character purposes and doesn’t contribute to the bigger overall story, it could probably be left out. It’s really up to you. But, remember that a summary should be easy to understand. If it requires extra explanation that goes on for a long time, it might be best to cut it.
How Do I Take 100 Pages and Make It into 1 Page?
Start with each 10 pages or each chapter, whichever is shorter. Read the 10 pages, and then write only 1 sentence about what happens in those pages. See if you can keep doing that throughout the story. If you get frustrated about losing elements, read the pages first, without taking any notes. Pause, write your 1 sentence, then keep reading. This should help you organize your process more smoothly. Think of it as a bit of a Stop, Drop, and Write process. Stop reading. Drop the book. Write the sentence. Then move on.
What If I Can’t Get It Down to 1 Page?
I’m finding that more places are open to a 1-2 page summary of a screenplay or lengthy book, especially if you’re really fighting with intense worldbuilding and intricate storytelling. I would imagine a project like Notting Hill (which I really liked) could be easily summarized in 1 page, where something like Babel (another favorite) or Lord of the Rings might need more pages.
Don’t worry so much if you can’t hit a specific page count or word count for your first pass. This is just getting the ideas down. You may have to trim for your requirements, but try to focus on getting the big picture on the page first.
What If I’m Writing This for a Marketing Pitch?
In this case, I would say – worry more about emotion and overall story, and less about linearity of story beats. What does this mean? It means you may not write out something in the exact order it occurs on the page.
So, rather than saying “James, 10, wakes up and has breakfast. He chats with his parents about his homework and goes to school. At school, he meets up with his best friend, Ryan, who is also his neighbor…” You might say something like “10-year-old James lives with his overbearing architect parents and attends school, where he struggles to focus on homework and faces bullying along with his nerdy bff/neighbor Ryan…” Here, you’re emphasizing more of the emotional journey for James (see words like “overbearing” and “struggles”), and you’re not spending time on individual, linear beats, even if that’s how the story opens.
What If I’m Really Stuck?
Drop a comment below on what’s frustrating you, and I’ll answer. Seriously. Let’s get this thing done to your satisfaction!
The Last Thing You Need to Know about Writing a Summary
- You don’t have to lose major plot points or characters to write a good summary.
- If you’re struggling to cut the story down, try to read first, then write.
- Remember – the emotional journey might matter more than the linear outline in communicating your idea.
Summaries can be overwhelming. But you’ll get the hang of it.
What do you struggle most with when writing a summary? Do you have any particular struggles right now? Comment below and let’s work it out!