• Member Since 7th Mar, 2013
  • offline last seen Feb 22nd, 2018

Midnight Rambler


I spend way too much time writing about writing, and way too little time actually writing.

More Blog Posts18

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Nov
29th
2014

Summary Execution · 1:24pm Nov 29th, 2014

Based on an earlier post of mine on the TV Tropes forums.

Summaries. Descriptions. Pitches. Whatever you call them, everyone agrees that they're important. When you pick up a book, you might look at the title and the front cover for a moment, but it's the pitch on the back cover that really tells you if the book will be interesting for you to read. And it's much the same with stories published online: the summary isn't the only thing a potential reader will see of your story, and it might not be the first, but it's definitely the most important.

In fact, it's often a good idea to start with the summary when planning a new story. A good summary clearly and concisely describes what the story is about and why anyone should care. The first aspect will help you form a coherent premise out of the swirling mass of ideas in your head; the second will test if a decent story can be built from those ideas at all. If the summary gets a "Yeah, and?" out of people, the story probably won't be very exciting either. If the summary introduces three or four barely-connected plotlines, chances are the story will look rambling and disjointed as well. In short, if you can't make an interesting story summary out of your ideas, you probably won't be able to make an interesting story out of them, either; best to realise that before you pour hours and hours of writing into your latest project.

So the purpose of a summary is twofold: inform potential readers of what kind of story it is, and persuade them to start reading. The persuasive aspect might be more obvious – of course you want people to read your story – but the informative side is at least as important. If you're selling jam, you want to convince people that yours will be the best damn jar of jam they've ever had, but it would be pretty stupid to make your jam look like peanut butter. People who like jam will ignore your product, and people who like peanut butter won't be fooled for very long. Similarly, if you're writing an SF adventure fic in which the Mane Six shoot laser guns at alien ninjas, don't try to pass it off as a cute original-flavour story. Readers looking for action and SF won't notice your story, and readers looking for original flavour might get a few paragraphs in before they find out what the story is really about and close the tab, confused and annoyed.

In a good summary, the informing and the persuading go hand in hand. By all means, try to make your story look interesting and exciting in the summary, but be honest and clear about what kind of story it is. If you feel you have to choose between informing and persuading – if you can only make your story look attractive with a vague or deceptive summary, while any properly informative summary makes your story look completely unappealing – then there's something very wrong with the premise of your story. Back to the drawing board you go.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at a few specific mistakes often made in summaries. With the two main goals – inform and persuade – in mind, a good summary does NOT:

1) Downplay your skills or the story's quality in any way. That means no 'I Suck at Summaries.' No 'this is my first fanfic.' No 'wrote this in thirty minutes while drunk #yolo.'

For me, this is partly a principal matter: I feel that if you're satisfied enough with your work to put it up on the Internet for everyone to see, you'd better damn well stand for it. However, there's an obvious pragmatic side to it as well. How do you expect to persuade people to read your story, if you outright tell them in the summary that it's probably not going to be very good?

2) Contain any grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors whatsoever. If I notice a typo in the story itself, I'll see a fellow writer who made a small mistake. If I notice a typo in the summary, I'll usually assume that you're lazy, stupid, bad at written English, or a troll – none of which are going to encourage me to read your story. And I'm far from the only one who has this kind of reaction. So triple-check your grammar and spelling, because they need to be... pitch perfect.

*gunshots, explosions*

Ahem. Moving on...

3) Contain more "out-of-universe" messages than strictly necessary. Much has been written about the importance of "immersion" in a story; that is, when someone's reading your story, you don't want them to think, 'Well, here I am, sitting at my computer and staring at a bunch of words on the screen.' You want them to think, 'Oh no! Discord has captured Fluttershy and taken her away to his cheesecake empire! I hope Snowflake will be able to save her!'

And ideally, the summary should be immersive as well. If your summary builds up atmosphere and draws people into the world of the story, there's a much greater chance they will want to read the story itself. Hence: the fewer distractions, the better. "Distractions", in this context, include the stuff covered under 1) as well as 'crossover with Astérix,' 'my entry for the Third Annual Hungarian Banana Eating Contest,' '[Raridash],' 'comments welcome,' 'OMG 200 faves thank you guys so much,' etc., etc.. If it's not part of the in-universe pitch, save it for the author's notes unless you have a good reason why it absolutely must be in the summary.

Thank-you notes to prereaders (proofreaders, editors, whatever you call them) are an important exception. These people put effort into making your story presentable, so send credit where credit is due. If your prereaders have Fimfiction profiles as well, be sure to link to those; if someone is reading your summary and casually clicks through to their page, that's a well-deserved bonus for them. The same reasoning applies to cover art credits (except there, you'll often want to link to the artist's profile on deviantART, not Fimfiction).

As for trigger warnings... Very often, trigger warnings in summaries aren't actually meant as trigger warnings; they're meant to advertise how sensational and "extreme" the story is, or which fetishes it panders to. If you're genuinely afraid that a traumatised person will start reading your story, oblivious of its subject matter, and be triggered – then by all means, slap a warning on it. But don't use trigger warnings out of habit, and definitely don't use them as thinly-veiled advertisements.

4) Look overly abstract or vague. Cryptic summaries not only make you look like a pretentious jerk, they also critically fail the "inform" part of their mission. Let's go back to the example of an SF adventure in which the Mane Six shoot laser guns at alien ninjas. There may be readers out there who've been yearning to read a story about the Mane Six fighting alien ninjas, and the more lasers the better. But if the summary is just a weird riddle or a Nietzsche quote, those readers will ignore your story anyway, because they'll have no idea that this is the alien-ninja-shooting thrill ride they've been waiting for.

5) Tell readers that, even though your story is a crossover with X, familiarity with X isn't required to enjoy it. It won't work. Almost all readers who haven't watched/read X will still dismiss your story out of hand.

If the crossover really is so subtle that you can say 'Familiarity with X isn't required' in good faith (these cases are rare) then go the sneaky way, and don't mention it's a crossover at all! You'll be writing for a much bigger audience, and no one will enjoy the story any less because... well, you just said they didn't need to be familiar with X, didn't you? If you can't say that, just be honest about it and accept the inevitable narrowing of your audience.

6) Contain question marks. They don't look mysterious, they just look stupid. Even as a joke they're overdone. I'd advise against ellipses (triple dots) as well.

Well, that'll be all from me for now. You know what you have to do, dear followers: write an Astérix crossover that somehow also involves alien ninjas, laser guns, a cheesecake empire, and Raridash shipping. Then enter it into a contest in Hungary.

If this were a site blog post, someone would probably do that.

Love and tolerance,

Rambler

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Comments ( 17 )

This is a very good and concise blog post, and I'll certainly be keeping it in mind when writing story summaries of my own. I have to ask though, did you mean to phrase the title of the blog the way you did? Because my first thought on reading the title was "summary execution" in the sense of "an execution of a person that will happen shortly" rather than "how to write a summary". :twilightoops:

2622790 I can assure you that was intentional. :rainbowdetermined2:

There's more to that title than just a good pun (if I do say so myself), though. A summary execution is an execution without trial (in other words, a murder). Similarly, in most cases, when someone's looking at a story's summary they make a very quick decision whether or not to give the story a try. You only have one shot at persuading them to read your story, which makes it even more important for the summary to be the best it can be.

This makes me think that my story, Ghost, went largely unnoticed because of the long description. As a mystery story with a 180 twist in the middle, I felt it was important to keep the description vague so as not to spoil the twist and the ending before the reader reached the end.

I think maybe that was a mistake. Anywho, great read. Thank you for writing it.

2622802

A summary execution is an execution without trial (in other words, a murder). Similarly, in most cases, when someone's looking at a story's summary they make a very quick decision whether or not to give the story a try.

....
I can't believe I didn't notice that. :facehoof: That's perfect.

2622815
Actually this was probably the only thing I partially disagreed with MidnightRambler on. Abstract and/or vague summaries can look massively pretentious, but they can look quite intriguing as well - it's a bit of a risk with them. Personally, your "vague" summary felt more intriguing to me than off-putting, but that may be simply because I had a prior bias - I knew that I liked your writing, and would probably like Ghost too.

Great post. :twilightsmile:

5) [Don't] Tell readers that, even though your story is a crossover with X, familiarity with X isn't required to enjoy it.

I don't think this is as applicable for MLP fanfics than it might be for other fandoms. Our most famous story is Fallout: Equestria, and other crossovers like Stardust are hugely popular too. Both of those stories require no knowledge of the series that it crosses over with. I think people here generally believe you when you say no prior knowledge is necessary, because the fandom has a lot of precedent for that.

One and Two are pretty obvious. I still cringe at the time I left the title on one of my stories misspelled for an entire day :facehoof:

Three I'd have to disagree on a few points. I consider contest/write off notes to be reasonable additions to the summary. Like editor credits, they give some attention to the other entrants and entries. The contest is also responsible for the story, so giving it a minor signal boost is not unreasonable. Of course, the efficacy of such things is another discussion, but the sentiment is there.

As for "trigger warnings"; when it comes to my smut I never bothered to call them that. I just put all the fetishes in brackets and let readers choose to treat them as adverts or warnings as they may. There's so little substance to most porn that listing the fetishes in the description is a completely reasonable facet of the summary.

For the same reason, I would think that a crossover should list its components (especially if the summary tries to do so in a non-obvious way already). The main draw of a crossover is the fact that it is a crossover, so informing your readers clearly of the franchises involved is important.

Four is pretty obvious. There are times, though, when you can give limited info and still maintain some mystery. Whenever I have trouble with a description, I often will take an excerpt from the story and rework it slightly. It tells the reader what to expect, while still leaving out some context. Obviously this is an exception, not the rule, though.

Five and six are also obvious. Question marks in particular feel very disingenuous. "Will Twilight save the day?" "Will Rarity be able to confess her feelings to Tom?" "Will Celestia stick to her diet?" If you are asking those questions in the summary, then the answer is invariably a big, fat YES! (Maybe with a few more exclamation points and a bigger font size.) It's a disservice to your readers to underestimate their intelligence so severely, and it's an incredibly lazy way to inject drama and intrigue into a description.

Aside from those minor points of disagreement, there's definitely some good advice here. Summaries often give so many authors trouble because there is not as many guides and advice relating to them (at least compared to other aspects of writing), so this is definitely a subject worth writing about.

If you're selling jam, you want to convince people that yours will be the best damn jar of jam they've ever had, but it would be pretty stupid to make your jam look like peanut butter. People who like jam will ignore your product, and people who like peanut butter won't be fooled for very long. Similarly, if you're writing an SF adventure fic...

What would Space Jam look like, I wonder?

For that matter, what would a Space-Jam inspired plot look like?

Love and tolerance,

Nice finisher! I'll steal it! NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW!

2622815 2622844 Nah, I think Ghost of a Rose has a pretty good summary. It's mysterious, yes, but at least it still describes the premise of the story, to an extent. It also does a good job of setting the mood and giving readers an idea what kind of story they can expect.

The summaries I was going after under 4) were more the 'Nietzsche quotes and weird riddles' – the really short, cryptic summaries that tell you little to nothing about the story (but plenty about the author).

2623278 Well, there's a reason I phrased 3) in terms of 'more than strictly necessary' and 'unless you have a good reason.' I'm not telling anyone to 'never put out-of-universe messages in the summary, ever.' Rather, I think the default stance should be 'as few as possible.' In other words, I'm trying to get people to consider 'it's out-of-universe' as an argument against putting something in the summary; of course, other arguments (such as the ones you mention) can outweigh it.

2624650
Right, thanks for clarifying - you're absolutely right, those summaries are annoying as hell, and don't particularly make me want to read the story.

2622815 2624650 2622844 As someone who hasn't read the story, I'd say that it does get the mood and some of the context across. It informs the the reader that the story is going to involve some sort of amnesia or something, and the Romance and Sad tags cover the rest. But it failed to intrigue me. There's hundreds of stories about amnesia and similar subjects, and it is a valid adult fear to explore. But there is so little in the description that it doesn't give any clue as to what makes the story unique.

2624650 I got that; I was saying that your examples were sending mixed messages. :derpytongue2:

2625317

From the perspective of the author - so take this with a grain of salt - I felt like revealing too much of what makes the story different would have been either:
A. Lying or otherwise misleading the reader to expect one thing when another was true (and thereby losing the reader's trust) or
B. Giving away too much and spoiling what was meant to be an emotional reveal in the turning point of the story.

I went through eight or nine different potential descriptions before settling on this one. It is, in part, an amnesia story. It is also, in part, a sad story and a romance story. But mostly it is a slice of life. I would have kept it Slice of Life alone, but the sadness is present throughout (albeit in small doses at a time), and the romance makes up a goodly portion of the story.

Most importantly, it tells of a time of change in Roseluck's life through a lens of amnesia recovery. Of sorts. This is a magical world we play in, and that magic is everywhere in this story. I don't think, if I had to, I could easily come up with a long description that would adequately convey what I feel would draw a reader in without spoiling or lying.

In any event... the story got the attention it got, and I'm okay with that. I'll simply have to do better next time to get the story noticed.

2625374 In a story that revolves around a twist or reveal, it can certainly be difficult to describe things without being disingenuous.

My usual approach is to have the description cover no more than the first chapter or first half of the story (depending on the pacing). That way the reader understands what is going on and the context of the story without being spoiled.

Of course, this assumes that the first chapter is doing most of the introduction and set up. I've also only written a few stories that had a major twist, so take that as you will.

2625602

I've been thinking about this exchange quite a lot, and I think you're right. It's something that I struggled with in creating the description of the story, and I've since gone back and made a couple of additions and tweaks to the long description.

Since you said it didn't grab your attention, out of the other amnesiatic stories out there, I was wondering if you might give a bit of critique on the updated version:

The world around Roseluck is slipping away piece by piece. Color drains away, fear creeps in, and an empty town hides a secret she is afraid to face.

When all that remains are memories of family, friends, and fleeting moments, a friend tries to help her hold onto them before they fade away.

Before she fades away.

A little more detail - an empty town. True to the story's very first chapter, and hopefully an intriguing enough detail, along with some additional detail on the type and scope of memories as well as the general state of her existence - missing colors, fears...

2630385 I can't speak for Clever, and I didn't have a problem with the old version, but this does seem like an improvement. The "secret she is afraid to face" gives more of an indication of concrete conflict, and the "empty town" may produce some "wait, what's going on?" reactions, which should hook a few people - all without breaking the general mysterious tone of your summary.

2630385 TBH, it feels fairly similar to the previous description. The main difference that you focused on when describing it is the "empty town". But the way it is arranged, that single thing doesn't really stand out. Triplets only draw attention to the final item if it contrasts severely with the first two. The last clause is certainly the longest, but it still comes across as a set of similar items; a series of mood-setting abstractions.

I decided to actually read the first chapter of your story, and I think I see the problem. The description focuses on details that only have impact if you are already familiar with the story. So it describes the story accurately. It doesn't accurately advertise it, however, because to a reader who knows nothing about the story it simply looks like a mass of details (as above).

You are definitely right that the twist needs to be preserved. (Though one could argue that the title hampers that goal, that's a separate discussion.) If this were my story, I would try and make it a little more specific and detailed. Something that gets the atmosphere across while still having a bit more focus. Maybe something like;

All around Roseluck, the stillness lay thick like a blanket, stifling her garden. The roses, calla lilies, daisies, and smaller plots of geraniums she cared for drooped as though she hadn't watered them in a week or more.

She glanced up at the sky, but it remained stubbornly featureless and iron grey. The air didn't smell like much of anything, either. Even the sound of Ponyville's busy market square was muted and missing. It felt like the entire world had decided to take the day off and not bothered to tell her.

She stepped closer to Pinkie Pie. The vaguely uncomfortable feeling refused to go away. Whatever Pinkie Pie wanted to, needed to show her, maybe it would help her remember why the town was so lifeless [italics might be overdoing it]. And even if it didn't…well, at least she wasn't alone.

I also considered something focusing around the gravestone, but that seemed to need too much context to be effective. That's true of pretty much the entire first chapter though, which is probably why it's summary gave you so much trouble. Definitely a tricky story to write a description for.

2630869

Thank you. I will say that the twist in the first chapter is not the twist I wanted to preserve. That's the hook, and the title does give it away, yes, if the reader is paying attention. It's a bit of foreshadowing of sorts.

I'll give it some more thought and see what I can come up with.

Thank you as well for the insight into triplets. I've used them mostly to emphasize a single point and cement a theme, not to create contrast. Something to consider, also.

I got stuck on 'cheesecake empire'.

The short description (which scrolls down the New Stories column) often gives me more trouble than the long. The short is the sound byte. It's the Tune In Later On This Channel promo: either it places the hook or there's going to be no second cast. You can't do detail in that little space, you can't link things up and there isn't much room to tantalize. You have to Get Their Attention. And there is absolutely no way of telling what's going to do it.

Well, no way in a positive sense. I can name a half-dozen Do Not Read short description triggers, and most of them may be visible in the New column right now.

I think the short description is all about curiosity. You have, at best, three seconds in which to buy thirty more. Three seconds to produce a judgment call which, if it comes up Reject, effectively (if locally) invalidates hours of work.

Now that's pressure.

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