Structuring Your Novel: Using A Chapter Summary, by Karen Wood
This article follows on from my previous article Structuring Your Novel: Chapters and Their Endings.
When I first ventured into writing fiction, it seemed everyone wanted a chapter summary – manuscript appraisers, agents, editors, publishers, marketing teams – they all wanted chapter summaries!
I thought it was because they didn’t have time to read the entire story. They wanted a quick summary of what it was about. I found the task tedious and surprisingly unsettling. Did I really have to list every single chapter? Could I not just write a synopsis?
My first publishing contract was for the first three books in what turned out to be my Diamond Spirit series for teens. These stories were very character driven, i.e. I relied heavily on the strength of the characters to carry the narrative forward. In all three books I got to the 70% stage and then thought, How on earth am I going to end this story? What is this story even about?
I think this is a point where many aspiring writers come to an abrupt halt. Some call it writer’s block. I say there’s no such thing.
As I set about resolving the predicaments my characters had got themselves into in Diamond Spirit, threads began to unravel in the earlier chapters of the manuscript. I had to go back and weave them back in. I began to have continuity problems. I lost count of how many times I had to go back and rewrite Diamond Spirit. To be honest, I don’t know how my editors stuck with me.
If I had revisited those chapter summaries everyone had asked me to write, I would have saved my self an awful lot of rewriting.
First, what is a chapter summary?
It is simply 2–3 sentences summarising each chapter, using bullet points or chapter numbers.
A chapter summary is your story laid bare – no padding, no witty dialogue, no flowery verbose. It is an incredibly useful tool to critique the bones of your story.
Is the premise a good one?
If you are having trouble writing a concise chapter summary, chances are, the premise is flimsy. There is no central story/action line. No mission.
While writing a chapter summary you will soon see where you need to trim the fat and where you could flesh out various themes, i.e. what is relevant to the central mission and what is superfluous waffle. If you don’t delete the superfluous, you can be sure your editor will, no matter how pretty your words are.
Is there a satisfying story arc?
A chapter summary can show you the rise and fall of tension in your novel; the pacing of your story. You can analyse how well your characters have developed, changed and survived their ordeals.
Have I resolved all the burning questions/plot threads?
As you begin to write the end of your novel, a chapter summary of what you have written so far will provide a list of all the issues that need to be resolved. You can cross check that all the threads have been neatly tied off, or not so neatly if you prefer. It will also help you to avoid continuity problems.
My second rural romance novel Rain Dance was told from alternating view points. The story begins with pious vegetarian, Holly Harvey, being forced to move to the country. Her viewpoint alternates, chapter for chapter with Kaydon Armstrong, the son of a beef farmer who is battling a severe drought in regional New South Wales.
I wanted to tell two stories simultaneously, bringing the hero and heroine together in a way that was full of presumptions and discord. I wanted the novel to be about finding empathy between city and country.
Writing a chapter summary for each and tabling them side by side helped me bring Holly and Kaydon’s worlds together in a way that considered tension, pacing and plausibility. I could manage the development and change of each character as they came to understand and appreciate each other.
I am now a lean mean plotting machine. I can write a chapter summary for an entire book, and in fact an entire series, before beginning to write the novel. I also find a chapter summary useful to refer to when writing a blurb, synopsis or pitch to potential publishers. When you rely on writing to make a living, this is a fine thing. It is efficient and time-saving. It is a valuable skill.
Karen Wood’s author website: www.diamondspirit.net
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