Summarizing Your Novel: The Query Trenches Part Two

Hey guys! Hannah here. Last month, I posted some tips on little ways to take your query out of the blah zone. JJ and Kelly also posted an awesome podcast on the query process.

When giving query advice, a lot of us take for granted that you’ll know what we mean when we tell you a query must have a short synopsis of your story. We also take for granted that you’ll figure out how to do this in 300 words or fewer. I’d like to talk a bit more about what goes into creating a good, cohesive summary that will entice an agent to read more in just a few paragraphs.

You’ve probably seen a lot of advice that tells you a good query is comprised of a hook followed by a summary of your story, ending with a bio and a few sentences on why you chose the agent you are querying. Structurally, this is sound. But when you have a sprawling epic with many perspectives, or even a quietly complex contemporary, it can be tough to know how best to distill your story into a summary that makes sense.

What I usually see in the slush is this: a summary that goes over many of the big points in the plot but rushes through due to lack of page space and direction. The agent reading might miss key plot points, or have no idea what that made-up word is. Maybe the summary began too deep into the story, and the agent is confused by the list of events. These questions are distracting for a query reader, and can bring them out of a query quick.

So how do you summarize your novel and do it well? We have a tendency to think we must somehow shove the entire plot into this tiny space. But that isn’t actually the case. The best summaries (even the sprawling, epic ones) contain these: your inciting incident, your main conflict, the plan, and the stakes.

Before we get into the summary, let’s talk about the hook. There are two reasons why your hook is so important. Number one: It’s the hook! Okay, that one is obvious. It’s designed to give agents a peak into your character that entices them into reading more. Number two: if done well, it should help you cut huge swaths of fluff from your summary.

A good hook tells us about the character and the conflict in one go. I’m taking this example of a hook from Erin Bowman’s post Querying: The Do’s and Don’ts (thanks, Erin!), to show you what I mean:

Gray Weathersby is counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday with dread, for in the primitive and isolated town of Claysoot, a boy’s eighteenth is marked not by celebration, but by  his disappearance.

We know who the main character is, we know something personal about him when the book opens, and we know what his conflict is going to be. I’m intrigued to keep reading.

Next: What is an inciting incident? This is that moment when the status quo is no more, and the character is forced to take action. This is a step I often see skipped in queries, resulting in a strangely disjointed summary.

Figure out what the inciting moment is for your character, and tell us about it. For example, a precious jewel is stolen from a museum—this is the catalyst for the Private Eye to enter the picture and solve the mystery. Or, your protagonists loses her job and instead of applying elsewhere, chooses to fulfill a dream and travel the world. Tell me about the moment when everything your character thought she knew is turned on its head.

Now that your character has been called to action, tell us what needs to be accomplished. This is where you flesh out your conflict. We don’t need each and every detail; just enough to show us what the protagonist must overcome. The P.I. must now solve the mystery of the stolen diamond—but a nefarious gang will stop at nothing, including murder, to prevent it from happening. And, the more the P.I. digs, the more he unearths about a political conspiracy (give some detail on that conspiracy) attached to the diamond theft. The World Traveler has all of her money stolen in a foreign country. The hostel where she was staying burns down with all of her worldly possessions. Maybe she, too, stumbles into a political conflict she knows nothing about.

So what are your characters going to do about it? They have decisions to make. These decisions are informed by the stakes. For a lowly P.I., getting in the middle of a nefarious gang AND a political conspiracy might not be worth it. So tell me why he gets involved anyway. Is he blackmailed? Does he have a personal tie to a person or plan within the gang or the conspiracy? Tell us why he MUST solve the murder, and what is at stake for him if he doesn’t. For the World Traveler who has lost everything, tell us how she plans to get home, what she must sacrifice to do it, and what happens if she fails. Is her father dying back home? Is her sister getting married? Is her house set for demolition? Why is it important for her to overcome this conflict?

A note on fantasy: it’s very tempting to try and give all the backstory about the world, its magical systems, its government, or its religion. These are things you’ve worked hard on – your story is not the same without these elements. But if character IS story (and it is), then the most important thing is to make us understand your character’s struggle at the most basic level. Leave the made-up words and the complicated hierarchies out of the query.

When you look at the summary in this way, you can see that even sprawling epics can be broken down into short summaries. These components make up the heart of the story, and that’s what an agent wants to see in a query.

I hope this has been useful! If anyone is interested in a Part Three, let me know below!



14 Responses to Summarizing Your Novel: The Query Trenches Part Two

  1. Marina Oct 9 2015 at 7:53 am #

    Yes, please! This was very informative.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 9 2015 at 9:22 am #

    Once again you make a fairly common mistake, assuming that the story has only one MC, there’s only one plot, one inciting incident, or that only one person has a plan. No surprise really, you’re talking about a synopsis, where everything is supposedly brought into a single line, but not every book has a single line. My novel Ghostkiller has two plots, two inciting incidents, an antagonist who’s also a protagonist, and no plans whatsoever, until possibly the last ten seconds before the world ends.
    There doesn’t seem to be a set of guidelines for non-standard novels. I created one in a dialog format, but the agents I showed it to weren’t interested. I’ve been wondering if maybe I could put the outer framework up as a bunch of declaratives, and then put the synopsis proper inside that, to show how each influences the other. There have to be other designs.

    • JJ Oct 9 2015 at 10:53 am #

      There are plenty of what you call “non-standard” novels that get successfully queried, synopsized, and published. I would suggest you read other novels which employ different structures, such as House of Leaves. House of Leaves is a collection of fictional ephemera that nonetheless still tells the story of a young family moving into a house that may or may not be haunted. It still manages to have a “single story blurb” on its Amazon page:

      [A] young family [sic] moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

      Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story—of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

      Another novel that has several storylines (all of which feed into the greater storyline of magic returning to England) is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell:

      At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England—until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

      Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

      One protagonist is not mentioned in the blurb (Stephen Black), nor is the primary antagonist (the gentleman with thistledown hair), nor is the second inciting incident mentioned (when Vinculus sells a spell to Strange). The copy instead focuses on the story chronologically. Even though there are several different storylines, there is still one narrative.

  3. Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar) Oct 9 2015 at 9:47 am #

    Hannah, OMG, yes, please, may we have more!

  4. Frances Brown w/a Claire Gem Oct 9 2015 at 9:58 am #

    YES! These are wonderful articles!

  5. TM Hayes Oct 9 2015 at 10:53 am #

    This post was very helpful, I would love part 3 ?

  6. RD Oct 9 2015 at 11:01 am #

    This is the best post I’ve read regarding queries. It’s put it together so succinctly! Thank you.

  7. Elizabeth Torphy Oct 9 2015 at 11:12 am #

    This is why it is important, as a writer, to continue to read blogs, posts, articles, etc. and always keep learning! Your post is great. I think I have written good queries. They get noticed and I am getting feedback. But….after reading your post, I realize that I may not be achieving all the goals I CAN with my query. I will go back today and fix per your great suggestions. Thank you for your knowledge.

  8. lisa ciarfella Oct 9 2015 at 1:18 pm #

    Yes, more of this please! Just shared out on FB and Twitter!

  9. lisa ciarfella Oct 9 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    can I reblog this on my site,

    (Usually, there’s a reblog button, but I don’t see one here, so I wanted to ask)

    • Hannah Oct 9 2015 at 7:12 pm #

      Yes, I don’t see why not! I’m glad you found it so useful 🙂

  10. Keira Drake Oct 9 2015 at 1:46 pm #

    What a great post!! I am weird; I really enjoy the challenge of query writing. You really nailed it as far as actually EXPLAINING what needs to be included (so many how-to articles miss this simple point)! 😀

  11. Hannah Oct 9 2015 at 7:12 pm #

    Thanks for your responses, everyone! I will take them as a “go” for part three 🙂

  12. Chris Bailey Oct 12 2015 at 2:20 pm #

    Yes, please. I appreciated this breakdown of query theory. Count my vote for part three!

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