Weekly Re-Motivator: Summary Stew

I can’t stand the summary.

You know, you crack the book open, and on the inside fold or the back cover or wherever, you get the blurb that tells you in a nutshell what the story is all about.

Karl Wisenberg is a mild-mannered office worker hiding a secret: his radioactive toenails. But there’s something more sinister than glowing fungus afoot…

Alice Klepper sells jewelry by day and state secrets by night. But will an unexpected purchase by an eight foot tall stranger provide her with the biggest secret of all?

The summary is supposed to give you a taste for the story without spoiling it for you; it’s supposed to whet your appetite and get you to crack the book and keep on cracking it until the end.

And I hate it. Because it gives the impression that the story is all about plot, that the narrative is a simple math equation with all these different elements — character, setting, tension, conflict — that add up to something. But a story is more than the sum of its parts. Because holding it all together is a fumy glue all the stuff you can’t fit in the summary: the creeping sense of dread you get every time a character opens a door in the story, where you don’t really know whether behind the door will be a harmless delivery man or a hatchet-wielding trans-dimensional wasp-man. Or the biting irony that infuses every word, wherein you can feel the author’s arched eyebrow and hear the sardonic twist behind every turn of phrase.

You can’t get that in a summary, and that’s the most important part of the story, I think. Because really: whatever you’re writing, the story has been told before. No matter how unique, how original, how unexpected your twists and turns are, somebody, somewhere has twisted and turned down that road. The only difference, the only thing that makes your story unique, is the way you tell it, the specific blend of spices you drop into the mix, the character that you build the story into.

Because a story is a living thing. It’s not just a chain of events, one thing leading into another like a dull-witted chain-gang of tromping inevitability. The story itself, just like the characters, has a flavor; the narrative itself has a feel about it that is much more than just the things which happen in it. And that flavor is what makes the story unique, that flavor is the thing that sticks with you after you’ve finished the book and brings you back, like the unbelievable egg rolls at your favorite restaurant.

Which is what I’m struggling with in my current project. I’ve got a decent chain of events, I’ve got decent characters and reasonable tension and a good smattering of conflict. But I haven’t found the right flavor for the brew. And the story, and my motivation for working on the story, is suffering as a result. I haven’t found the right feel for the story, and the story feels wrong as a result. Feels bland, uninteresting. Luckily, writing isn’t like cooking. You want a good solid stew, you have to get all the spices in at just the right moment to release their flavor and bring out the best in the dish. In writing, though, you get as many chances as you need. Screw up the flavor and you can add more salt at the last minute, or strain out the bad spices and replace them with new ones, or even toss the whole dish and rebuild it from the ground up.

But the flavor will come. The thing with writing is to keep plugging away at it, keep working, keep creating. The more these characters simmer in the narrative stew I’ve created for them, the more the subtle notes will come out, the more I’ll be able to tell what flavor is right for this tale.

So, as you’re writing, don’t stress about the summary. Focus on the flavors, focus on the interplay between elements, focus on the parts between the “important” story elements, because those are what keep readers coming back for more.

Am I wrong? Is the summary more important than I give it credit for? What flavor do you most appreciate in a story?

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

11 thoughts on “Weekly Re-Motivator: Summary Stew

  1. Trans-dimensional wasp-man, I like it. I don’t like reading the summary because I am afraid it will tell too much about the story and I really like to go into a book not knowing how it will play out. Usually the cover and title and maybe a tiny blurb about it will capture my interest. I like to be surprised. I agree it is hard to fit it all in the summary. During the summer there is a book reading challenge through our county library. We decide how many books we want to read and then we are supposed to write a summary about each book. I find writing a summary very difficult and don’t want to give away too much either. Just something to interest others in reading the book. And I do love what each writer brings to their own story.

    Liked by 1 person

      • For sure. It is harder than it looks to write a summary. I have felt pretty inadequate doing it for the library summer program. I try to put a few interesting details and you have to do it in a small number of words.


  2. I liked this post, but I love it. However, there’s no button for that.
    I hate having to write summaries for the stories I write.
    When it comes to reading, I’d rather go by the title and knowing the genre of the book.
    A story is a living and a breathing thing, like you say. A few words strung together into a handful of sentences can never do that justice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read the summaries because they’re there, but I make my judgments about books within the first few pages. For example, I read “Gone Girl” recently and I knew I was going to enjoy it because it had both seriously creeped me out and literally made me laugh out loud by the end of two pages.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never read the summaries. I flip to the first chapter and read a few paragraphs to decide if I’ll be able to “get into” the book. Most of the summaries are cheesy, although I probably would read a book about radioactive toe-jam….


  4. I’m struggling with flavour myself at the moment. I think it’s important to get it down in the first draft and keep it – every edit I do, as I change a section of my work I find the flavour changing. And so I go on to the next bit and change the flavour of that… but wait! There’s a plot hole at the beginning! Do a re-write… damn it, it’s too spicy! But it’s good! New edit of the entire book ensues.
    It’s frustrating! And you’re not alone.
    Thanks for the giggle – fungus is a flavour, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, those edits have a way of snowballing out of control. Fungus probably *has* flavor, though I don’t know if it intrinsically *is* a flavor.

      Also, you’re misspelling “flavor”. You silly non-American.


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