Everyone in the publishing industry needs to summarize a book at some point. Authors pitch books to agents, agents pitch books to publishers, acquisitions editors pitch books to the sales team, and the sales team pitches books to customers, reviewers, and bookstores. The different summaries all have different goals and formats, but they share one important thing in common: a plot summary should help the reader or listener understand what to expect from your book.
In today's querying atmosphere, a good book summary is essential to catching an agent or editor's interest. They don't have time to give vague summaries the benefit of the doubt. By the end of your query letter, they need to be confident in the quality and content of your manuscript.
So how can you convince an agent or editor to take on your book with a single plot summary?
Know the Expected Structure
The first step is to understand their expectations. What do query letter plot summaries look like?
Like a blurb, query summaries usually follow the pattern of three paragraphs: background, inciting incident, and the stakes and goals. Make sure to stay well away from a synopsis and only include one turning point. This format will show an agent/editor that you are familiar with industry expectations and traditions.
If you are new to querying or it has been a while since you queried, make sure to become familiar with the format before you attempt your own. There are many places where people share drafts of query letters or successful query letters. The expectations frequently change, so you'll want recent query examples. Nothing older than five years. But if you search "successful query letters" you should be able to find plenty of recent examples in your genre.
When you're ready to query, make sure to check the query guidelines each time you send out your query. Some agents/editors will have specific requirements that aren't covered here and missing those requirements is likely to end in a rejection. Generally the best method is to have a base query letter draft and give it minor tweaks each time before sending it out. This post will be aimed at that main draft, but don't forget to go back and edit to meet the specific requirements when you send the query letter out.
Provide the Essential Information
Once you know what your plot summary should look like, you'll want to understand the purpose of your plot summary. For you, the query letter is meant to get your book published, but for an agent/editor a query letter is a quick way to gather important information about a manuscript.
For an agent/editor to be interested in your manuscript, they need to leave your query letter confident that your manuscript is the right genre, has a complete and compelling plot, and that you have a clear and enjoyable author voice. Without these things, an agent or editor won't be able to sell your book so they won't be interested in learning more about it.
Showing You Have a Complete and Compelling Plotline
The first step to a successful plot summary is to break the plot down to its most essential pieces. This is the only way to convey an entire book's plot in a few paragraphs.
To start off your plot summary, I recommend writing a bullet point list that covers the essential pieces of your plot, which are
antagonist/challenges to the goal
major genre elements
Before you try to write a cohesive draft, use your bullet point list as a brainstorming session. Write down words and phrases that you can work into complete thoughts later. Bullet points are a great way to get at the heart of these important details with as few words as possible, something you will be grateful for later
To help you write your list, here is some more information about each of these summary essentials:
Agents and editors will want to know the protagonist's general age, important traits, and about their genre-related skills. Show them why this character will appeal to readers of your genre and age range. For the younger age ranges, make sure the character fits in with the expected character ages.
To show an agent or editor that your story has a cohesive plotline, you will need to provide them with a clear goal for your protagonist. This goal should be established in your inciting incident and resolved in your climax.
Avoid mentioning any other goals, which could drift into synopsis territory or make an agent/editor feel that your plotline is messy.
To create tension in your plot summary, you will need to include an obstacle to your protagonist's goal. In most stories this obstacle is the antagonist, but it could also be a challenge the protagonist must face, such as their own insecurity or an earthquake.
Make sure to focus on the conflict that features in your climax and opposes your protagonist's goal. In The Princess Bride, the six-fingered man is a bad dude, but he's not the primary threat to Wesley and Buttercup's happiness. Avoid bringing up subplots in your summary and stay focused on the overarching plotline.
If possible, you can describe the conflict/antagonist as the protagonist is aware of them early on in the book. Are the protagonist and antagonist racing to achieve the same goal? Is the antagonist already powerful and needs to be stopped? Are they fighting out in the open or in secret? These type of details will show agents/editors the flavor of your book without needing to know all the details of your ending.
But if you have trouble summarizing the conflict without spoilers, don't prioritize mystery over clarity. The editors and agents are not trying to be surprised by your ending. They're trying to see if your book is something they can sell. And that means not just the first chapter, but also the last. While you don't want to summarize your entire plotline from start to finish, don't be so afraid of spoilers that you can't show an agent or editor that the book does have a cohesive plotline.
Good fiction is all about emotions and a lot of the emotions come from the stakes. What is at risk for the protagonist? What are readers hoping for at the end of the book?
Be really specific here. Even if it's true, never say the stakes are saving the world. That's the stakes for a ridiculously large number of stories and it doesn't pack the emotional punch you are looking for.
Is the protagonist trying to protect a specific person? Are they trying to save the world from a very specific form of destruction? The more specific you can be, the better.
Major Genre Elements
This may not seem like an essential part of your plotline, but a true snapshot of your book should include clear signs of the genre. The genre of your story is a huge deal for agents and editors. They have connections with very specific parts of the market and their ability to sell your book will depend significantly on its genre and appeal to readers of that genre.
To show an agent/editor what niche your book fits into and how it will appeal to that audience, you'll want to include details that show off the genre. For a fantasy or historical fiction story, that will likely mean the setting is important. For a fantasy or science fiction story, they'll want to see signs of the fantastical or otherworldly. For a romance, it means you'll need to talk about the love interest. Whatever parts of your story define your genre, list them here.
For best results, I recommend that you include in your list both specific details, such as an explanation of the magic system, as well as small words and phrases that hint at the genre, such as castle, knight, murder, space ship, galaxy, etc. This way you can choose words that hint at the genre during the entire summary.
Your definition of your genre should also include an age range for your audience. While you should specify this elsewhere in your query letter, you also want to be careful to focus on details that highlight the age range your story is intended for. A horror story summary can use words that paint a picture of gruesome deaths, but a middle grade summary should usually mention a death with minimal detail. You may include the exact age of a middle grade character, while not mentioning the age at all of an adult. Consider what details show off that you've aimed this book at a specific age range and met the requirements of that category. Make sure you've listed those details out under your summary essentials and remove any items that will feel out of place.
One really helpful way to help clarify the genre of your book is to use the primary method of conflict resolution. When your characters encounter a problem, do they pull out a sword? Start coding? Do a dance? Make a big speech? Look for clues? This may seem like an odd detail to include in a plot summary, but it makes a huge difference in the genre. I, Robot and Arrival are both science fiction, but they appeal to wildly different audiences. The method of conflict resolution can be a huge part of identifying the book's subgenre and audience. Any summary that doesn't include the primary method of conflict resolution risks being unclear on the genre.
Now that you have a list of the coolest and most important parts of your book, it's time to turn those into sentences.
There is no one right way to piece these details together. The right summary for your book will be based on what you need an agent/editor to understand about your manuscript. But using your bullet points should help you stick to the most necessary details and create an accurate picture of your plot.
Don't forget the purpose of your query summary. When words get tight, focus on highlighting the genre, age range, and overarching plotline. You will not be able to fully convey everything that happens in your book, but by focusing on the climax you can paint a clear picture of the most important details.
Your final summary should cover the basics of your plot essentials in a way that highlights both the emotions of your story and the expectations of your genre. This will likely take several drafts. Don't be afraid to grab a fresh pair of eyes to help you gage that your plot summary is clear to people who haven't read your book.
Don't forget to edit your summary for tone and voice as well. Your author voice and style is one of the most important things you bring to a partnership with an agent or editor. A synopsis can be dry, but a query letter should represent the tone and style that you use inside the book.
Eventually you will want to summarize your entire plot in about three paragraphs of text. A summary of that length can fit comfortably inside a standard query letter. This type of summary is going to make it much easier to have agents and editors understand the real heart of your book and decide if you will be a good fit.
Good luck querying!
Don't forget that a query letter isn't all plot summary. Check out this post for the details on the rest of the query letter.
About my coauthor:
Elestrei Engrei was a huge help at providing the author perspective for this post.