Monday, August 7

Birth of a Book: The Development Stage: Summarizing the Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Early Stages of a Novel Series


This series has been discussing the early stages of writing a novel. We started with the Stage One: the Idea Stage, beginning with the Inspirational Spark, moving on to Brainstorming the Idea, Clarifying the Idea, and wrapping it up with Testing the idea. Next, we entered Stage Two: Development, which got us looking at ways to create characters, and then further develop those characters. We then shifted to setting and world building, and last week, we focused on figuring out the plot. Today wraps up Stage Two with summarizing the story.

A story summary is a lot like a synopsis without all the pressure. It doesn’t matter what format it takes or how long it is, it’s just all of your thoughts and brainstorming ideas fleshed out on paper.

Not all writers will summarize their stories, so if you’re the type who likes to dive in and get to the writing, don’t feel you have to summarize it first. This is just one more potential tool in your toolbox, nothing more.

This is the final step in my own planning process, and I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful for getting my story thoughts in order. I start with the opening scene and describe what happens. Then I move to the next scene and so on until the end of the story.

That’s it.

Once my story start staking shape, I’ll break the scenes into acts so I know what scenes happen when. I don’t even use chapters at this point, since I’m not sure how long some of these scenes might be, but I’ll know act one ends with X, the midpoint is Y, and act two ends with Z. That’s enough for me to flesh out what happens in between. The size of the summary varies from book to book, but mine run typically between five and thirty pages.

I don’t know everything at this point, and I don’t need to. The goal is to write enough to give me direction when I sit down to write the actual novel. Some of it I uncover as I summarize each scene and describe the motivations and conflicts behind my larger plot goals, but some of it is still vague. If I don’t know something yet, I move past it and keep writing what I do know. I might skip ahead with a general “this is where she runs around and figures out who did it” type phrase, knowing by the time I get to that part in the book, I’ll know what it is she actually “runs around and does.”

Although I write the novel in order, I’ll work on the summary out of order if one scene is clearer in my head than another. Sometimes I’ll need to figure out how a major turning point works before I can understand how the characters get there. Other times the reverse is true—until I know how the characters get there, I can’t figure out how the turning point unfolds. Sometimes I’ll even know the result of a turning point, but not the turning point itself, and I’ll need to work backward. Every story develops a little differently based on how much I know about it going in.

By the end of my summary, I’ll have a general sense of what the novel is going to look like. I can then fill in holes, tweak plot points, develop additional characters, anything I need to do. Or I can start writing if I feel I have enough. I’ve also worked out all the easy “first ideas,” so hopefully what I’m left with are fresher and more original ideas, which will save me revision time later on.

The summary is a basic blueprint of my story, complete with notes and things to remember to add along the way. It won’t make sense to anyone but me, and that’s okay—it’s only for me. It’s a tool, nothing more.

If you like to organize your story thoughts before you write, you might give summarizing your story a try. And if you’re struggling with your process, or have trouble finishing a novel, this could be a good way to make sure you have all you need to write before you put a lot of effort into the actual writing part of it.

Next week, we’ll move on to Stage Three and the final step of this series—the actual writing of the novel.

Do you summarize your stories before you start, or do you prefer to dive in? How much to you like to know going in?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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3 comments:

  1. I, more or less, just dive in, although I am quite aware from the beginning, I will be going back and filling in with tidbits in many places. Still, the bulk of the story is there.

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  2. Thanks, Janice for all these book stages, I'm enjoying them all. While I didn't think I summarized, I suppose I do look for the catalyst from Act I into Act II; the midpoint and a very simplistic ending. I try for various plot points. I've just read your Understanding Conflict! Fabulous! Getting conflict in is the most difficult part for me. Great blog as always, Janet. I don't know how you share so well your super understanding of all things writing. Thank you!

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