How To Summarize Your Novel

How To Summarize Your Novel in 3 Steps

If you’re like me, you struggle to summarize your novel. One time a friend asked me what my book was about and I found myself starting at chapter one, as if she had all day to sit and listen to me narrate the entire 65,000 page book. It was just too hard to give the gist of something I poured my heart and soul into for so long. To me, as the author, the book is so complicated and involved that I didn’t want to leave anything good out.

Luckily an agent never asked me the question. I’m sure that my word vomit would have put them off. If I can’t sum up the story, they’d think, then I don’t really know what it’s about. It’s OK to just give the gist of it, leaving out all of those cool details. If the person you’re telling wants to know more, they will ask. If not, don’t waste their time.

That’s why it’s important to have a summary ready to fling at the next person who asks what your story is about. Your time is valuable and so is theirs.

Without further ado, here’s my recipe.

1.) Know the major events in your book/your three act structure.

It’s important to know all of the major events in your book in order for this summary to work. You will need the following ingredients:

  1. The first disaster, the thing that signals the end of the first act and kicks off the second act.
  2. The second disaster, the midpoint of your novel.
  3. The third disaster, what ends act 2 and begins act 3.
  4. The resolution.

If you need help figuring out your three act structure, learn more here.

2.) Summarize the ingredients in one sentence.

We’ll use Star Wars: A New Hope as an example, because … Star Wars. The first disaster in Star Wars is Luke’s Aunt and Uncle getting fried nice and crispy. The attack on Leia’s ship by Darth Vader at the beginning could be argued as a disaster, but this is the Key Event, which is different than the Inciting Incident. I go into detail about that here. For this, all you need to understand is that Act 1 of Star Wars ends with the disaster of his moisture farm going up in flames. Now he has nothing holding him back from getting involved in the rebellion.

The second disaster/midpoint is the destruction of Alderaan. Our lovable heroes learn what the Death Star is capable of, and they get sucked into the Death Star by a tractor beam.

The third disaster/end of act 2, is Obi Wan’s death. Luke sulks and Leia has to console him. “That weird old dude you just met died? My entire planet just blew up destroying everyone I know and love, but let’s talk about your problems.”

The third act is all about Luke taking on his destined role in the rebellion, and the resolution is the boom boom of the Death Star. The Empire tracked them to the rebel base and are going to blow up the planet unless they do something. (Rogue One explains why such an insane flaw was in that giant death machine, incase you were wondering… but it didn’t explain the brother on sister smooches in A New Hope.)

ANYWAY. Let’s sum up those events in nice sentences. It’s best to keep this focused on your main character, or three central characters max. There’s also no need to name anyone aside from the three central characters – it takes up space. For the sake of this example, I’ll only name Luke. In the first sentence I provide a little glimpse at setting.

Here are the summaries:

  1. In a galaxy far far away, a farm boy, Luke Skywalker, accidentally discovers plans from a princess involved in the rebellion against the empire, and his family is killed for it.
  2. He joins up with his mentor and two smugglers to deliver the plans to the rebellion, but they’re trapped by the Empire’s most powerful weapon.
  3. Luke’s mentor sacrifices himself so that he and his friends can escape.
  4. With the help of his mentor’s final lesson, Luke destroys the Empire’s weapon, becoming a hero to the rebellion.

3.) Combine those sentences into a paragraph.

You may need to edit them once they are combined, so they flow better into one another.

In a galaxy far far away, a farm boy, Luke Skywalker, accidentally discovers plans from a princess involved in the rebellion against the empire, and his family is killed for it. He joins up with his mentor and two smugglers to deliver the plans to the rebellion, but they’re trapped by the Empire’s most powerful weapon. Luke’s mentor sacrifices himself so that he and his friends can escape. With the help of his mentor’s final lesson, Luke destroys the Empire’s weapon, becoming a hero to the rebellion.

If you want to leave them in suspense, take out the bit with the resolution and edit the third sentence to be a cliff hanger.

In a galaxy far far away, a farm boy, Luke Skywalker, accidentally discovers plans from a princess involved in the rebellion against the empire, and his family is killed for it. He joins up with his mentor and two smugglers to deliver the plans to the rebellion, but they’re trapped by the Empire’s most powerful weapon. Luke’s mentor sacrifices himself so that he and his friends can escape. They get away, but unknowingly lead the Empire straight to the rebel base, and the Empire intends to destroy the rebellion once and for all.

And that’s it! How to summarize your novel. Now the next time someone asks you what your story is about, you can give them a sweet and simple answer. If they ask you follow up questions, that’s when you can get into Wookies and Jedis. I hope this helped!

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