My Summary Sucks

Writing summaries for fan fiction is hard. In fact, writing a summary for anything is hard. There are always details and nuances that you want to get through to your audience that just aren’t going to happen with such a small word limit.

So some authors give up.

‘Everyone’s in high school! I wonder what’s going to happen?? Lol Summary Sucks. Plz R&R’

You’ve all seen them. The summary that tells you nothing but insists that you read anyway because… well, actually, just because.

Do we see the problem with this yet? No? Really?

Your title and summary are the only things people see of your story when they’re browsing an archive of fan fiction. That, and your name. Some people are lucky in that they’ve got a following of people who will read their stuff simply because it’s been written by them. Those are the people I secretly hate. The rest of us have our work cut out for us to simply convince people that our story is worth reading.

Your summary is an advertisement. It is marketing at its simplest and best. It is saying ‘please click on this story and spend your time reading my work. It’ll be worth it and you’ll come out of the experience not only feeling like you haven’t wasted your life but also that I, as the author, am a pretty awesome person for sharing it with you.’

Sorry, the old egotism strikes again. I’ll try to keep it in check.

But do you see where I’m going with this? As a reader, my time is valuable. If I had to choose between two stories—all else being equal, of course—one which has an honest attempt at a summary and one where the author didn’t even bother to try, guess which fic I’m going to spend my time on? Guess which one I’m going to leave a review for?

You don’t see advertisements for your favourite products saying that they suck at writing ads… but you should totally try it anyway! There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason that advertising only talks in positive ways: they want you to think positively about their product. They want you to see the ad and get a good impression which will make you spend your time and your money on that product.

It’s the same deal with fan fiction summaries. You’re asking people to spend their time (and remembering that old cliché: time is money) reading your fan fiction. You’re then asking them to spend their valuable time giving you a well-rounded review so you can improve your writing. They’re not going to do that if their first impression of you is that you’re terrible at writing summaries and that you haven’t even given them the courtesy of attempting to write one.

You need to market your fic to attract readers. You need to put effort into your summary.

How to write a good summary

Going to get this out of the way first up. There is no formula for a good summary. There is no one correct way. There are, however, some general rules. To help demonstrate I’m using examples inspired by my pet fandom, Beyblades, but these are all fairly general things.

1. What is it about?
Fairly basic but this is a guide about how to escape from the ‘Summary Sucks’ demon. What happens in your story? Is someone upset? Is there a fight? What happens to make the characters do what they do in your story?This isn’t something that can really be taught. You just have to look at what you’ve written and try to describe it in one or two sentences.

‘Oh no! They’ve been locked in a tiny room! However will they get out?’

Not great. But it’s a start.

2. Who is the story about?
Some people will read stories simply because they include their favourite characters. That’s awesome! Take advantage of that and tell your readers exactly whom they’re going to be reading about

New and Improved
‘Tala and Bryan have been locked in a room by their teammates. However will they get out?

Just by mentioning names you’ve already got a few readers who will read because they’re interested in reading about Tala and Bryan. You’ve also stopped anyone who’s not interested in those two from clicking on your story and getting annoyed with you. Two birds, one stone, zero survivors.

3. Showcase yourself
So you’ve got your basic summary but, to be honest, I’d still be a little leery of clicking on that fic unless I knew the author. So it’s time to show off what you’ve got. Add in a little of your own style. Personally, I write in a fairly straightforward way and I hate questions in summaries. I also like adding in elements of humour. If you make them smile in the summary it’s more than likely they’ll read.

Panda’s Summary
Trapped by their teammates, Tala and Bryan hatch schemes for escape, murder and creative ways to hide the bodies.

Alternatively, if you have a particularly beautiful style of writing (I don’t) you might choose to showcase some of that.

Pretty Writing Summary
Tala’s ice-blue eyes roved around the room his teammates had forced him into. He winced as the lock clicked shut. “Bryan— we’re trapped.”

See what I mean by not a particularly nice style of writing? You know the kind I’m talking about, though. The one that reads like non-pretentious poetry. The styles that feel like the words you’re reading are too beautiful to exist merely as a typeface on a screen.

Anyways, you can see that despite this being a summary taken from prose it’s got the elements. It tells you what the story is about, it tells you who it’s about AND it even gives your potential audience a preview of your gorgeous writing style. If we were still killing birds here you’d be up for some sort of war crime.4. Pairings, Warnings and Bits and Pieces
Similar to the naming the characters, you want to narrow your target audience and get them interested in your story. If your story has an OC in it, you want to appeal to people who read OC-heavy stories. If your story has slash, you better damn well tell people that (hell hath no fury like a non-slash-friendly person stumbling on to slash).

Warn them if there’s anything controversial. It’ll save you some pissed off reviews. Tell them if you’ve got any pairings. Basically, make sure that you’re not going to have anyone leaving you some pretty nasty reviews because they’ve fallen for your advertising charm and have found something they strongly object to in your fic.

It’s all about appealing to your target audience

Final product
Trapped by their teammates, Tala and Bryan hatch schemes for escape, murder and creative ways to hide the bodies. TxB

It’s not perfect but it does give the reader an idea of what the story is about. They know it involves Tala and Bryan as a couple. They know from the tone of the summary that it probably isn’t going to be a very serious, angsty fic. Probably most importantly, they know that the author actually thought about the summary instead of giving up and simply writing ‘Summary Sucks’.

I should note that these rules are more just guidelines than hard rules (just in case you hadn’t worked it out). There are fantastic summaries that break all of these rules and yet get their message across. Maybe the best way for you to figure out your summarising technique is to have a quick scroll through a few pages of stories, reading their summaries. What makes you stop and decide to read a fic? What summaries make you think ‘By Golly Gosh! I need to read that fanfic!’ and, most importantly, why? Summaries aren’t science.There is no hard and fast way to do it right. There are only a few absolute no-nos.

Don’t sell yourself short. Let your potential readers know what your fic is about and always keep in mind that your summary is basically an advertisement. That means no putting down your fic (leave self-doubt for when you’re not trying to win over people— if you don’t like your work why should others?), telling people any prudent information (pairings, controversial topics etc) and spell checking. Nothing says ‘I don’t care’ more than a typo. And if you don’t care, why should your readers?

In Summary (The TL;DR Version)

Your summary is advertising.  It is how your convince people to read your fan fiction in the first place. Don’t sell yourself short by not putting any effort into it or simply writing ‘Summary Sucks’ because, to me, that says one thing: ‘Story Sucks’. And I’m not going to read that.

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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4 Responses to My Summary Sucks

  1. JuliansGIrl says:

    Bet you’d still read it if I wrote ‘story sucks’… But then you’d politely tell me it sucks! Lol

    • Meg Laverick says:

      I’m sure I’d couch it in much more diplomatic terms. ‘Needs more work’ perhaps XD But you’re one of those people whose stories I’d read just because you wrote it, lovely. Bask in the glory.

  2. phoenixandtiger says:

    Damn, I wish everyone knew about this blog. Especially this post. I have seen so many stupid summaries, and oh my god, they pile up on you. After a day of maybe scrolling through the HP archve on ffnet, I find maybe five supergood ones that I just HAVE to read, ten that I might if I have time, and the rest are just…epic and utter fail.

    And those pictures – pure gold right there, I tell you. Angry Birds FTW!!!

    I completely agree with the part about the pairings. Lord knows I have clicked on some stories where the author doesn’t do anything with the character tags, and the summary implies this pairing…and then I continue reading, and I’m nodding my head thinking ‘Hey, this isn’t half-bad!’. Then I read a line that makes me blink and just say a flat ‘What the fuck.’

    ARGH!!!!! I really hate it when people do that!!!!!! It’s like they WANT to get flamed!

    – phoenixandtiger

    PS: Are you going to write a fic with that summary, btw? If yes, can’t wait. If no, mind if I borrow it sometime? (After this hiatus, I mean?)

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Tell you what. Every time you find someone with a ‘Summary Sucks’ or misleading summary direct them here 😉 That way everyone wins!

      I was considering doing a blatant Angry Birds homage with pigs and everything but though it might confuse the two people in this world who haven’t played the game.

      Me too! I hate it when there’s no indication of a pairing and then suddenly- BAM. There goes your eyes. That, and when bizarrely disturbing things crop up with absolutely no warning. There IS something to be said for the element of surprise but there are some things you don’t surprise people with, you know?

      If you want that summary it’s all yours 🙂 I just made it up for explanatory purposes.

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