Saturday, April 10, 2010

Guest Essay: DameNellie in a Word or 2, or 2000...



A few weeks ago, I embarked on my very first
fic dive for the Ficster. I'm usually a pretty lazy
reader and just read stories that have been
recommended to me. But I was excited about
discovering something new on my own. I mean, how
hard could it be to find one good canon fic? So
off I went to and I did a search
in Twilight fics for the term "canon." And it turns
out that there are 2,226 stories with the word 'canon'
in their summary.

Now, I was committed to my mission,
but there was no bloody way I was reading 2,226 stories to
find a good one. So when you can't rely on recs, you're
left with one thing - the story summary.

I'm sure it's obvious to readers and authors alike how important a good story summary can be. Even though I rely on recommendations most of the time, I still distinguish between fics primarily by their summary. And let's face it. There are a lot of bad summaries out there. A LOT. On my fic dive, I managed to dismiss the vast majority of stories based on their summary.

I was turned off straight away by anything with bad spelling, anything that said "I suck at summaries" and anything that mentioned Nessie (because I have an irrational hatred of her character. But that's a topic for another day). I did make me think about what it is about a summary that draws me to a story.

A few months ago, we were having a discussion about the story A Litany At Dusk at the Gazebo on LiveJournal. Some of the commenters in that post said that they weren't interested in the story because they didn't like the summary. It sparked a discussion about how difficult it can be for authors to write a good summary. The author of that story, the hugely talented Duskwatcher, weighed in on the debate saying:

"There is a reason why they don’t let movie directors make the film trailers or let authors pen the back cover "blurb." It is a different skill set, and I find everything sounds clichéd."

A lot of the authors I talked to for this story said similar things. All of them had struggled with their summary and a lot of them had changed them over the course of the story. Sometimes the story had changed direction from their original intention. Sometimes the tone differed as the story matured. Sometimes they just realized their original summary sucked.

For anyone who has read A Litany At Dusk, there is no doubt that Duskwatcher is a great writer. But she obviously struggled with summarizing such a complex story in only 255 characters. After the discussion about her summary, she decided to change it. Take a look at the two different summaries and see which one would have grabbed you more:

Original version:

Edward’s rebellious period didn’t last a few years; it lasted seventy. When he finally rejoins his family in Forks, he is dark, dangerous, despairing and desperate. Will Edward be willing to fight for her instead of fighting against her? AU-rated for lemons

New version:

Edward's been a solitary vampire, hunting on the edges of society. He rejoins his family in Forks, ready to abstain and runs across a young woman praying. A choice must be made between one's heart, one's desires and one's soul. Darkward ExB AU

Now, obviously I was drawn in by the original summary. But others thought the summary sounded melodramatic and clichéd. Some were put off by the mention of lemons, as this often indicates that the story will feature more sex than plot. However, the fact remained that people were being put off a well-written story because of a clichéd summary.

When I asked a bunch of people to give me examples of summaries that they really liked, one story that was mentioned again and again was Carpe Noctem & Fiat Lux by Queenofgrey:

Endless midnight brings about a desire for morning, a longing for something more. Dark & light. Push & pull. Crash & burn. When Edward collides with Bella, it's up to them to find the balance, if the night doesn't consume them first. AU"

From the summary, you immediately know that it's AU and it's about Edward & Bella. You also get a feeling for the tone of the story and you get a glimpse of the author's style It's vague enough to be intriguing while revealing enough to give the reader a sense of what the story might be about.

I remember reading the summary for Times New Roman by Kathy Rindhoops and knowing immediately that I wanted to read it:

University professor Edward Cullen is anything but cool: he’d rather read the dictionary than anything, he hasn’t had a girlfriend in years—and, he’s a pervert. Can new doctoral student Bella Swan bring him out of his slump? AH, AU, OOC."

It's not the sort of thing that would probably appeal to most readers. But it sounded like something straight up my alley. And that's now one of my favorite fics. Story summaries are as much about the particular taste and interests of your readers as anything else. When I asked people in the fic discussion communities what they looked for in a story summary, I got a huge range of responses. We're such a diverse fandom and we're all looking for something different. Some readers want to be reassured that their favorite characters will get together in the end. Others don't want to be spoiled and will be put off if you explicitly tell them about an HEA. So what the hell is an author to do?

Based on my own very unscientific research, I've gathered a few pointers for writing a story summary.

Know your audience

Choosing what to include in your summary depends on who you want your fic to appeal to. A lot of the readers I asked said that they are turned off my mentions of smut or lemons in a summary. But so many summaries include these terms. Why? Because a huge proportion of readers in this fandom are looking for smut. So putting these in your summary is likely to bag you a bunch of horny readers. But if you're not actually going to include a lot of smut in your story, you're just going to end up with a bunch of disgruntled, unsatisfied readers. It's better to be honest and attract readers who will actually be interested in what you're writing.

Give your readers the information they need

Is it canon? AU, AH? What are the pairings. What genre is it going to be? Is there anything unusual about your fic that would make it stand out?

Proofread your summary

Nothing puts off potential readers more than typos, bad grammar or text speak in your summary. It's only 255 characters so make sure you get every one of them right. Seriously, get someone to proofread it for you if you suck at grammar.

For the love of all that is holy, don't make excuses in your summary

Look, most people suck at summaries. Because they're bloody hard. But just get on with it. Whenever I see someone saying they suck at summaries, it doesn't give me a lot of faith in their writing. Nor will telling me that it's your first fic and it's not that good. Let your readers be the judge of that and just let your writing speak for itself.

Don't give away too much

This one is contentious because I know some readers want to avoid sad endings and like to be reassured that there'll be a HEA. But by doing so, you can ruin the sense of intrigue and put off a lot of readers. Fic diver extraordinaire, Emavalexis, said "I get that most Twific (particularly featuring canon couples) is by default going to result in a HEA. But I don't need an author's unnecessary (and unwelcome) reassurance of such in the summary." So think about how much you really want to give away to potential readers in your summary.

Include trigger warnings

You don't have to be specific or ruin your plot. You can have something as vague as "trigger warning" or "Contains scenes that may trigger." That way people who are sensitive about certain material can make the choice about whether or not to read your story. Sure, you may turn off some readers, but you're also being considerate of the fact that people are reading fanfic for entertainment and deserve to be warned about content that might upset them.

Show your style

Try and give readers a sense of the tone and/or style of your story. Including a quote can be a great way to give readers a taste.

Try to avoid clichés

I realize how hard it is to avoid clichés, especially when most fics are in the romance genre. But melodramatic questions like 'Will Bella be able to save Edward from himself?' and 'Will true love prevail?' have become de rigueur these days. When there are a thousand other stories with the same kind of summary, you can get lost in the crowd. Have a look at what other summaries are out there and try and to avoid some of the more commonly used phrases. It'll make you stand out more.

So what's the moral of the story? Know what story you're trying to tell and think about what readers you want to appeal to. Try to be a little creative and show potential readers a bit of your style - whether it be funny, sexy or deep. You're never going to appeal everyone. But you can make yourself more attractive to the kind of readers who would already be interested in your kind of story.

Epic thanks to everyone who helped me with this article. Particularly those in the LJ comms who answered my questions and especially Duskwatcher and Emavalexis

DameNellie is the author of the one-shot A WellMade Mistake and is currently working on Conversation on War, for the Twilight 25. Check her out. Run, don't walk.


  1. Great article! I'll admit, I am first attracted to stories by their titles (or pretty banners!), but the summaries are what really makes me decide whether or not I want to give the fic a try. A prime example: Edward Wallbanger by the lovely Alice.

    I read a lot. A whoooole lot so if I hit a grammatical error or apology in the short summary, you're absolutely right - it doesn't give me much confidence in the writing.

    And I've found that spanglemaker9 is extreeeemly talented in writing summaries. They showcase the style of the writing for each story (Faking It versus Girl with a Red Umbrella) and immediately draw you in without giving away too much of the story.

    Thanks, again, for the wonderful article! =)

  2. Thanks for writing this. Summaries can definitely make or break a story before that link has even been clicked. So true about excuses -- why even waste those precious few words on saying "I suck at summaries"?

  3. This is great! I'm considering rewriting my summary, fortunately I haven't broken any of the summary laws you mentioned above, but it still made me reconsider.

    Thank you for the tips!


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