Submission Protocol: Summary Execution

In my opinion, one of the toughest things for writers to do is summarize their work into a few sentences. I mean get it down to pitch length, still make it interesting, and avoid giving away the entire plot. Authors aren’t called on to do this very often with short story submissions, but a few markets ask for a brief synopsis in the cover letter.

So how do you write a good summary? Well, I’ll tell you how I do it, but before we get started be advised that story summaries are somewhat rare in publisher guidelines and you should never include one unless the publisher specifically asks for it.

Okay, as with everything submission-related, always read and follow the guidelines. When a publisher asks for a summary, they’ll usually say something like this:

Please put your title, byline, and word count in your cover letter, as well as a brief note about how your story fits the theme.

Brief and fit the theme are the important bits there. When you write a summary or synopsis, keep it to a single paragraph, and make sure you clearly demonstrate how the story fits the theme of the magazine or anthology. Something like this:

Set in the mid-50s, “When the Lights Go On” takes place in a small towns near Arco, Idaho, the first to be powered entirely by nuclear energy in the United States. The townsfolk have noticed terrible changes in themselves whenever they turn on the lights powered by this new energy source. 

What I want the editor to get out of my summary are three things: how my story fits the theme/subject matter of the publication, the general premise of the story, and the primary plot hook. I feel if I can accomplish all that, I’m in good shape.

Here’s another, longer story summary. It’s still a single paragraph, however, and again, my goal is to explain how it fits the theme of the publication, set the premise, and give a plot hook.

In an alternate version of the United States, the country has instituted archaic dueling codes overseen by a government agency called the Bureau of Honorable Affairs. Victims of certain offenses can force their tormentors to face them in state-sanctioned combat. In a “Point of Honor,” the protagonist, Jacob Mayweather, is challenged to a duel by a man he has never met for a crime he does not remember committing. 

This is about as long as I would go with a summary (this one is 70 words). More than that, and I think you risk a) giving away too much of the story, b) losing the interest of your reader (the editor), and c) failing to follow guidelines that include words like “brief” or “quickly.”

That’s how I write a story summary, but why would publishers want one in the first place? I think there are two reasons and editor might request one.

  1. Fit the theme. More often than not, when I see a request for a story summary its from an anthology with a very specific theme. By asking writers to briefly summarize their stories, the editors can determine if the story is going work for the anthology before reading it. If the theme is hard sci-fi and the editors get a submission with a story summary that is clearly epic fantasy, they don’t have to waste time reading that story.
  2. Writing sample. A story summary is going to give the editors a sneak peek at the author’s writing ability. Can they clearly and engagingly describe their story? Do they use punctuation and grammar correctly? This is not to say a badly written summary means the editors won’t read the story or that a good one increases chances of an acceptance, but it’s a first impression that will likely color the editor’s opinion of the story to follow.

What are your thoughts on summaries and synopses? Tell me in the comments.

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