Title:How to Write a Good Summary for Your Fanfic (Because if you say you suck at summaries, who will want to read your story?)
Subject: How to write good summaries for your Tolkien fanfiction.
Author's Notes: All of the sample summaries come from actual summaries within the Tolkien fandom. However, I've left out the titles and the authors and other possible identifying information from both the good and bad examples. This is not to avoid giving the authors credit, but to avoid embarrassing the ones chosen as poor examples. I realized that if I gave anonymity to the poor examples, I should also do so with the good ones. If you have read the stories in question, I request that you do not "out" the authors in your comments, please.
Word Count: 3,000
The phrase is practically a running joke among those who read fanfiction: "I suck at summaries." Sometimes it takes the place of a summary. Sometimes it's used as a tag. Sometimes there is an actual summary, or at least an attempt at one, with the phrase tacked on.
Why put something like that in the place where your summary goes? Some people may honestly think they are bad at summaries, and hope that by a little self-deprecation they will be able to defuse criticism. Others think it's funny. And perhaps there are those who see others doing it all the time and believe it is expected behavior.
The truth is that most readers find it annoying and frustrating. When a reader is searching for a good story she/he isn't going to be enticed by someone whose summary "sucks". If you can't write a good summary, the reasoning goes, then why expect a good story?
Yes, it does take a bit of skill to summarize a story in such a way as to get the reader to click on the title and begin to read, but isn't it better to learn that skill than to wonder why no one ever reads your story?
The Good Summary
A good summary needs to be brief. In archives that have a character limit for the summary it's important to get the most information you can into the summary within the count. If you go over the limit, your summary may be cut off in the middle of a word.
But brevity also needs to include the most necessary information. Somewhere between 15 to 25 words is usually sufficient to tell the reader what he/she needs to know. Imagine that "You are standing in an elevator and have two minutes to tell someone about your book."
What can you include in such a brief number of words? You can include who the main character is, what conflict he or she may face, an action that needs to be taken, and perhaps a hint of the setting if necessary.
If your main character is a canonical character, it is a good idea to mention the name, but if the main character is an original character (or OC) it's best not to waste the name in the summary, but rather refer to him or her in terms of his or her position in Middle-earth: "an Elf of Mirkwood", "a Ranger of the North", "a hobbit lass from Bywater", etc. Readers who normally do not read OCs, but like Mirkwood Elves or Rangers or Hobbits may be enticed by this description, whereas an unfamiliar name may lose their interest.
Next include a tiny bit of the plot. What conflict will your character or character face? Is he going into his first battle? Has she run away from an abusive home? Have they met their true love, only to find family opposition? However, do not give away too much. You don't want to spoil the story for your readers before they begin.
Some stories lack in conflict, such as slice of life stories, character studies, fluff or angst, or humor stories often have little or no active conflict. These sometimes are actually easier to summarize, as it is easier to tell what's going on. "On a summer afternoon, four young hobbits enjoy picking berries." "Legolas ponders what he knows about Gandalf." "Faramir mourns his brother." "Bofur loses his hat, and a hilarious search ensues."
There are other things that can be included in a summary, such as a romantic pairing, the setting, whether or not the story is a one-shot, and so on. In some archives or communities, such information can be included in a header required by the archive or community in question, while other archives may prefer such information to be included in the tags. By taking advantage of this, you can save room for the story details.
Here are a few really well-done summaries from various stories in the Tolkien fandom. You may or may not recognize the stories and authors, but I have taken out the titles, the authors' names and any additional information that might have identified the story.
"Merry’s routine firewood gathering errand turns dangerous when a band of brigands hunts the hobbits and Strider after Weathertop."
Notice that the author begins with the identity of the main character, and reveals the plot without giving away too much; in addition, she manages to pinpoint the particular gap and location as well. For a reader who is fond of Merry, or who likes gapfillers and adventures, this story would be very appealing.
"Glorfindel died... Glorfindel returned to Middle-earth... but what happened to him between these two events?"
This is perfect for an epic story about what happened to Glorfindel in the ages before he becomes a part of Elrond's household. The ellipsis is used artfully to indicate the ages that passes in between, and the question is not merely rhetorical, but incites curiosity in a potential reader: What did happen to him?
"As she travels between the Lockholes in Michel Delving and the home of relatives in Hardbottle where she's chosen to stay, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins finds reason to rethink her life and priorities.
In this summary, the author makes sure the reader is clued in to the time and setting of this gapfiller (mention of the Lockholes places the timeline at some point during "The Scouring of the Shire"), while the last phrase leads us to know it is an introspective character study rather than something more plot-driven.
Frodo begins sensing the thoughts of the bearers of the three Elven rings. When an accident injures Pippin and Elladan, and traps Frodo and Merry with Saruman and Gríma, will this new ability help or hurt? AU post-quest story, also starring Elrohir, Elrond, Celeborn, Gandalf, Sam, and Galadriel.
The unusual cast of characters here will interest fans of a broad range of character types. The author also sets up the AU and draws attention to how Frodo's new ability may move the plot.
There are things you may wish to clue the reader in on before they open the story. Many archives come with a warning system and drop down options or tags, but not all of them do. If you have the space to include some extraneous information after the story description is complete, you may add such information afterwards. Commonly these are things like "drabble" for 100 word ficlets; "one-shot" to describe a single stand alone story; "book-verse" or "movie-verse" or "book/movie blend" for those stories in which that matters. If the archive does not provide them, you might like to include any trigger warnings that might be applicable. You may wish to include information about whether the story was written as a gift or for a challenge. But all these things are not absolutely necessary in the summary, and can also just as easily be put in a beginning Author's Note.
The Poor Summary
There are a lot of things that cause a summary to fall into the failing category. Of course the worst is to not mention anything that is actually relevant to the story, and gives no information that would guide the reader into deciding to read it.
Many summaries tell us only about the author: "I was up too late eating candy, so I wrote this at 3AM on a sugar high." "I just thought this up randomly and thought I'd post it." "I had a weird dream and decided to write it down." "This was a class assignment so I thought I'd post it here."
Neither is a summary a place for your own opinion of your work. When an author begins their summary by saying "This story is totally unique", the reader is probably safe in assuming it is no such thing. "Best fanfic ever" is not going to win any readers either. On the other hand, saying "This story is pretty bad, but read and review it anyway" is not going to entice anyone to click on the title.
Many summaries include way too much negative information: "I just finished it and wanted to post it so excuse my spelling and grammar errors." "No beta." "Character bashing". "Character X is OOC (out of character)". Things like this turn off a lot of readers. If you are unsatisfied with a story, don'tpost it until you are satisfied. Saying in your summary that you know it could be better, but you did not want to wait and check it over first is just laziness, and readers know that.
It should go without saying that you should be even more careful about spelling and grammar and so forth in your summary. "Should" is the operative word. There are any number of summaries in which all the rules of capitalization, spelling and grammar are thrown right out of the window. If you can't maintain your standards in the short length of a summary, it's a fair inference on the potential reader's part that the story will be riddled with the same mistakes.
Some summaries tell too much, revealing spoilers for the story. Or they go into too much detail about their OC or the alternate universe they've created. Some things should be saved for an Author's Note at the beginning of the story, or maybe a prologue. The purpose of the summary is to tell just enough to whet the reader's appetite, not to hand over the full meal and dessert before they even open the story.
Here are a few examples of some bad summaries for LotR fanfiction; as in the above section, You may or may not recognize the stories and authors, but I have taken out the titles, the authors' names and any additional information that might have identified the story. I promise that ALL of them are actual summaries:
"Just a little random silliness I thought up in the middle of the night."
"My first attempt at comedy...you either love it or hate it, folks!"
"My first, not bad"
"A poem I had to write for school so why not put it on here?"
All of the above have something in common: they are not about the story, they are about the author. Unless potential readers are personal friends or family members, they do not care about the author, they want to know is the story worth reading. None of these "summaries" will tell them that.
"Oh wow, I'm so innovative! Yes, this story talks about a woman who stumbles in the LotR universe and is a 10th walker but what makes this woman different is that she's from a realm where Tolkien doesn't even exist, but she has very interesting clues about the future thanks to a dream that she described in a song not to mention that she shares heart with a dragon"
This summary is Too Much Information. First, the author indulges in bragging about the story; then there are spoilers for the plot of the story. Finally, the only punctuation mark is the exclamation point at the beginning. The rest is a breathless run-on sentence.
"[Original Female Character], is [an Original Unknown Race]. A creature filled with wonder and mystery. Born among the rare race, she is one of the few left in Middle Earth. Not only is she a rare being, she is a dangerous one. Threatening everyone around her with darkness that had beseeched her when she was a wee lad. [ Full Summary Inside ]"
This one has both too much and too little information. It spends most of the summary on describing the OC, but in very vague terms. It reveals nothing about the plot or about any canon characters or situations that a reader might identify as familiar, and thus enticing. And then it tells the reader to click on the story in order to get an actual summary. Most people will simply ignore it and move on to the next story on the page.
"this is a parody to lord of the rings, please post reviews, i am not sure if i should continue it and your support would help"
Not only is there no capitalization, the author begs for reviews, and then indicates that she is not sure she's going to finish writing it. Why would a reader bother with it?
"This is a little funny fic set in my hometown now...see if you can figure out the mystery guest and how they're there..."
"An extra character is added. Please R/R! Thanks!"
There is actually nothing to identify these two stories as fanfiction about anything Tolkien, or any real information about the story. Either of them could be about anyone or anything.
"This is a story written in hopes that u guys like it. I am taking the lord of the rings series one step further, in the future!"
At least this one indicates the fandom, even though it doesn't tell us much about the story. Using text-speak ("u guys") and failing to capitalize The Lord of the Rings doesn't help much either.
"oh just read it"
"PG 13 for drunk Hobbits. This is just a piece of madness that I came up with when running a bath, but unfortuntley, ff. net doesn't have a weirdness genre... Still, it's pretty funny, read and tell me what ya think"
"I'd like a few reviews before I go much further with this. I'm not sure how this will work yet, and if it is worth pursuing. Comments, please."
Ordering people to read your story is probably not the most effective way to gain readers. The same goes for ordering people to "Read and Review". It's better not to tell your readers what to do, even if you add a "please". Telling the reader that you don't know where the story is going is also usually a poor idea. (There may possibly be exceptions, but they are rare indeed.)
Practical Exercises to Help Improve Your Summaries
1. Go to an archive and look at random summaries on the browsing page. Study the summaries that appeal to you and make you want to read the story. What is it that attracts your interest? Is it the mention of a character or pairing that you love? Does it have a turn of phrase that incites your curiosity? Does it indicate a genre you are fond of?
2. Do the same thing with summaries that you dislike. What's wrong with them? Try re-writing them as a better summary if possible.
3. Choose a format for your summaries, so that you have something to get you started. When I first began to post fanfic, I used the old-fashioned beginning "In which..." for most of my short stories and ficlets. (For example, "In which Merry and Pippin tell stories, and Estella tries to prove herself.") This works very well for slice of life or fluff stories.
4. Create a "fill in the blank" for yourself: "[character name] must [verb] when [situation happens]. Will [he or she] succeed?" or some other such sentence that will work for you for many stories.
5. If your story is based on a particular canon gap or a quotation in the book (or movie), you may consider using a quotation as your summary. For example, if you were writing a story about the migration of the hobbits from the East, you could quote the entry for the Third Age from "Appendix B: The Tale of Years", for 1150: "The Fallohides enter Eriador. The Stoors come over the Redhorn Pass and move to the Angle, or to Dunland." This is a perfectly good summary for such a story.
6. Ask your beta or a friend who has read the story to tell you how he or she would summarize it. Sometimes another eye can see better than your own what it is about your story that other people would like. There is nothing wrong in getting advice from a trusted source.
Remember, the whole purpose of posting a story to the public is to gain readers. If you cannot sum your story up in a way that will draw readers in, you probably need to work on it some more.
DOs and DON'Ts for Good Summaries
1. Do use vivid verbs and nouns when appropriate. "Flee" sounds more exciting than "run"; "peril" is more vivid than "danger", and so forth. When you only have a short amount of space every word counts.
2. Do NOT spend a lot of adjectives on your Original Character. Save the color of her eyes and hair and the description of her personality for the story.
3. Do think of the things that make you want to read a story, and include those in the summary when possible.
4. Do NOT order the reader to do anything. If the reader is interested enough to click on the story, she or he will do so. Telling readers to "read and review" or even worse "review or I won't post anymore chapters" will likely even turn them off.
5. Do make sure to use correct spelling and grammar.
6. Do NOT make the summary about yourself. A summary is about the story, not the author. Your story is not about you; it should stand on its own merit.
7. Do use a positive and enthusiastic tone--if you are happy with the story, let it show.
8. Do NOT be negative. I have seen many summaries end with "I don't really know if it is any good." My personal reaction is always: "Well, if you don't think the story is any good, why do you expect me to?"
9. Do make sure to include all necessary information. Readers want to know if this is the kind of story they are looking for.
10. Do NOT substitute tags for a summary. Too many tags can also turn readers off... especially if one of your tags is "I suck at summaries".
Stories of Arda: Random summaries from various authors (most of the good examples)
Fanfiction.net: Summaries from the browse pages for "The Lord of the Rings" (all of the poor examples)
Archive of Our Own For a look at using tags instead of summaries (or in addition)
TV Tropes: "I Suck at Summaries" (Yes, "I suck at summaries" is a trope.)
Rachelle Gardener, Sept. 3, 2015: Your Elevator Pitch (Good tips on how to create a concise summary.)
WikiHow: How to Write a Fanfiction Summary
StackExchange: Writing an Effective Summary for a Story
Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Better Summaries