Dum dum duuuuuuum! It’s time for… the BOOK SUMMARY <terrified screams>

Soooo in theory all you gotta do is explain the ENTIRE multi-faceted, layered-like-an-onion, vast emotional sweep of your novel in just a few paragraphs. Simple, right? Gahhhhhhh. Don’t panic, we’re here to help.

Okay, we’re gonna assume you can handle the fairly straightforward task of looking up the name of an agent to stick at the top of your letter and sign off like a human, so let’s deal with the tricky middle bit of your query: the book summary.

This is the crux of your cover letter. An agent may well scan over the intro and bio and whatnot – ’cause what they’re really interested in is your story.

Nathan Bransford, author, publishing guru, and former agent at Curtis Brown, sums up the purpose of the book summary thusly:

1) You are trying to make the plot/subject of your book sound awesome

2) You are trying to show the agent that you write well

Now, there’s no singular method to help you write this small yet super-important and perfectly formed paragraph, BUT there are a few useful ways of approaching it. Whichever technique you use, the most important elements to include in your summary are:

Your protagonist (eg: Kermit McFrog)

Your protagonist’s aim or goal (eg: to discover his own individual identity in amongst thousands of other frogs)

The conflicts and challenges your protagonist faces along the way (eg: the competition with his siblings; the lack of connection with his father; the physical threats of the goldfish and heron; existential angst)

Essentially, we have a character who wants something but is thwarted in their quest, therefore must change/act in order to achieve their goal/escape a threat.

Now, see if you can sum that up in ONE SENTENCE – also known as an ‘elevator pitch’. This is the core of your summary and it’s worth keeping in mind as you draft and redraft to make sure you’re following that golden equation:

CHARACTER + GOAL + CONFLICT = PLOT

Right. Good. Yes. But how do we expand that snappy one-liner into a summary?

Well, we’ve got three tried and tested techniques for you. Have a read through both and then throw yourself into the exercise at the bottom of this unit.

1: The Expanded Elevator Pitch 

This technique is essentially an extended version of the one sentence pitch, except the three main ingredients are spread over a couple of paragraphs. You start with an introduction to your protagonist, then expand on their goal/conflict, and end with a significant moment where all three elements collide. A lil’ like this:

A sentence to set-up the story: who your character is, what they want, what their problem is.

Another couple of sentences to expand the situation: further details about the conflict they face, how they’re gonna try and deal with it, or how other characters affect their story – basically any other essential information we need to get a sense of the book.

A final few sentences that describe either the final climax or the central crux of the story: you might leave us on a cliffhanger where your character faces a difficult choice, or you might highlight an important theme of the book. Either way, leave us wanting to find out more.

If you’ve got a really solid elevator pitch already, this one might feel like an easy way to turn it into a proper summary, and the ‘cliffhanger’ ending is a nice way to keep your agent on the edge of their seat. However, if you have lots of complex plot threads to intertwine, you may tie yourself in knots trying to incorporate them without a more structured approach. In which case, check out the others below.

2: The Bransford Method

Alternatively, Nathan Bransford suggests this easily-adaptable and compacted format as a template for your book summary. The great thing about this one is it immediately gives us ALL the information we need (ie: the three essential elements from your elevator pitch) in a readymade narrative structure. Then all you need to do is insert details as appropriate, expand on bits that need extra clarification, and add a bit of your own writing voice to sweeten the pot. Here’s how it goes:

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

Let’s play with Kermit’s story to see how it works:

Gif of Kermit The Frog taking a sip of tea.

Kermit McFrog is a young tadpole living in an overcrowded pond. But when a vicious heron threatens the lives of his siblings, Kermit must put aside his desire for individuality and embrace the safety in numbers in order to keep his family alive.

[Brief aside: if you haven’t already noticed, your book summary should be written in present tense – this is just how it’s done, don’t question it, just go with it. It’ll be fine.]

Now, in following Bransford’s structure we had to strip out a lot of the internal struggle that Kermit deals with, and since we’re planning on querying an agent who likes ‘angst-based literary fiction’, we should probably add that back in. It’s also a bit… dry (excuse the pun). So let’s tweak and expand it a bit to include some additional story layers and personality. Like so:

Kermit McFrog is a young tadpole living in an overcrowded pond, desperate to differentiate himself from his thousands of identical siblings and finally make his father notice him. But when a vicious heron threatens his family, Kermit must put aside his desire for individuality and embrace the safety in numbers to help them all survive – discovering, to his surprise, that each of them possess their own unique strengths, and that perhaps he can succeed without the recognition of his father.

Okay okay, long-ass sentence at the end there – it’s very easy to start to waffle in an attempt to squeeze your entire novel into 200ish words – but hopefully you get the idea… And if that doesn’t float your boat, we have one more method to try:

3: The Hook, Line & Sinker Method

This technique consists of a snazzy little teaser, followed by a mini-synopsis, as championed by AgentQuery.

The ‘hook’ in this instance is a ‘concise, one-sentence tagline for your book’ – it’s more direct than the ‘[protag] is a [something] living [somewhere]’ opening, and allows you to jump right to the tipping point of your story, throwing the reader/agent into the deep end. For example:

When Kermit McFrog’s family is targeted by a serial killer, Kermit is forced to abandon his quest for solitude and return home to face his estranged father and a vicious killer.

Or:

Even with a thousand brothers and sisters, Kermit still has no one to talk to – all he wants is a pond of his own, but a string of grizzly murders brings him back home.

Hooks are great for building atmosphere right from the off, as well as avoiding too much exposition early on. We may not know who or where Kermit is, but we can immediately see he’s faced with a difficult problem.

Next comes the ‘mini-synopsis’ – which builds on the premise of the hook, shows how your story develops, and offers a few choice details to pique the agent’s interest.

For this, we might rehash some of our summary attempts above, drawing out the subplots of Kermit’s crisis of individuality as well as the physical threats of the predators. We might even reveal the juicy fact that the father is deep in debt and paying back the heron loanshark with blood… After all, there’s no rule that says you can’t give away the ending if it benefits the query.

However, it seems that using the hook method makes our angsty lit fic novel sound more like a thriller. Perhaps we categorised it wrong and it IS a thriller. Perhaps we should highlight the literary bits more. It’s funny (and often distressing) how the simple act of summarising your book can tell you things about your book that you never realised before…

Whatever you do, don’t be overly vague. A character who must ‘overcome insurmountable odds’ is admirable, but if we don’t know what those odds are, how are we going to root for them? If a character discovers ‘dark and hidden family secrets’ we’ll be intrigued, but not as much as if you told us about the loan shark issue. Also be cautious of getting lured into using movie trailer language to make your plot sounds more dramatic – specifics and details are the key here if you’re going to make your query sound unique.

Aaaaand finally, here’s literary agent Samar Hammam from Rocking Chair Books to tell you about yet another way to attempt your query:

EXERCISE: Put your money where your pitch is

YOUR TURN!

Don’t freak out. It’ll be fine. This is just your first attempt. A brainstorm. A simple experiment with form.

If you want to work from your elevator pitch, do that. If you want to start afresh, great. Either way, don’t get too precious about any particular sentence or description – be prepared to tweak and adjust and cut and slash so that Every. Single. Word. Counts.

Spend 30-60 minutes (or however long you can stand) playing about with different ways to tell your story in the space of 1-3 paragraphs.

Try the expanded elevator pitch approach, or use Nathan Bransford’s template, or have a go at opening with a ‘hook’, or simply try writing your summary like it’s the blurb on the back of your book.

THEN: post your summary/query up on the forum so we can all help you brainstorm the best way to tell your story!

NOTE: Don’t drive yourself (too) crazy at this point. We’ve still got a lot of tips and techniques to share. Just get something down – a first draft – and then share it on the FB group for some input from your fellow writers. Plenty of time to rework and refine it until it’s *perfect*.

Up next: more resources to help you nail that query!

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