The paragraph summary is primarily designed to keep you–the writer–on track. As I mentioned in the clinic introduction, this information is for your eyes only. (Read more about the purposes of the paragraph summary here.) You may share it with crit partners or a writing partner, but most of us prefer to keep this information pretty close to the vest.
Our first sample comes from my own story stable. I’ll begin with the tagline developed in the first Single Sentence Clinic, which you can read here.
A history professor who is afraid of heights researches a defunct railroad in the Appalachian Mountains and uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.
The Paragraph Summary
Remember the basic rule of thumb is five sentences for the paragraph summary.
- One sentence to set the story up.
- One sentence to summarize the first quarter (Act 1) of the story, ending with the first major turning point.
- One sentence to summarize the second quarter (Act 2A), ending with the second major turning point at the middle of the story.
- One sentence to summarize the third quarter (Act 2B), ending with the third major turning point.
- One sentence to wrap things up (fourth quarter, Act 3).
The First Paragraph Summary
It may be easiest to begin writing a paragraph by writing each of the five sentences in list form. For this story, it looks like this:
A professor of history prepares for a research trip to explore the subject of his next book, the Clinchfield Railroad.
He assembles crew and equipment, including a private railcar and a local history expert, but the trip is interrupted by an accident that leaves a team member in critical condition.
After considering the options, the professor decides to proceed, but with caution despite the objections of crew members and others, but the trip is next halted by a fatal accident.
There is no choice but to abandon the journey, so they cut the trip short and begin the return journey until discovery of the final clue.
Face-to-face with the truth, the professor confronts the person and succeeds, but at great cost.
I like to write the first draft this way, sentence by sentence, because it’s easier to keep my place. I know where each sentence should begin and end. Even if I don’t have a clear idea of the story, I can see at a glance whether or not the major turning points escalate properly.
(To read about developing the turning points for this idea, click here.)
How Does It Stack Up?
Three turning points: The paragraph summary should have a beginning, three turning points, and an end. The three middle sentences should each conclude with a major turning point. Each major turning point should be worse than the one before. Even at this phase in the process, the story should have a sense of rising urgency.
The three turning points described above are a critical injury (sentence 2), a death (sentence 3), and the discovery of the truth (sentence 4).
How Can It Be Improved?
If you’re still in the planning stages, don’t worry about not having all the turning points nailed down when you write the paragraph summary.
Keep in mind, however, that no matter where you are in the writing process, it’s important to look for ways to improve the strength of the turning points. For some tips on doing that for new work, check out this Writing Well Story Clinic on Turning Points. To see how to use turning points to improve an existing manuscript, click here.
In other words, there is always room for improvement.
I’m not happy with my first combination of turning points. The first two are good, but the third one leaves quite a bit to be desired. “Discovery of the truth” could be anything from the lead discovering he forgot to pick up the dry cleaning before leaving town to discovering his personal assistant is an international spy. It definitely needs to be clarified, so I spent time figuring out what incident could be the “worst thing that could possibly happen” at that point in the story.
The New & Improved Version
After playing with existing and potential turning points, I chose the ones that were strongest and most appropriate for the story I wanted to tell. I then wrote the following paragraph summary, sentence by sentence.
A history professor prepares for a research trip to explore the subject of his next book, the defunct Clinchfield Railroad.
He assembles the best crew and equipment, but the trip is almost derailed when someone sets fire to the private railcar.
After a brief investigation, the trip begins but is interrupted when a freak accident leaves a team member in critical condition.
Encouraged by the injured party to continue, the professor proceeds with caution until a mysterious death puts a permanent end to the trip.
The professor’s research turns to real life crime and the solving of a mystery that may end up costing more than he’s willing to pay.
Turning Points: The turning points are now:
- A fire in the private railcar
- A critical injury
- A death
Notice, please, that the solution to the problem was re-ordering the major turning points. I inserted a new first major turning point (Sentence 2) and moved the others backward. The escalation is much better, with the most serious of them coming where you expect it to be; near the end of the story.
No sequence of events is ever ideal, so I took another look at the sentences and fine tuned the turning points and the summary in general.
When I was confident they were as strong as possible, I assembled the sentences in paragraph form.
The Final Version
And here is the final version. For now.
A history professor prepares for a research trip to explore the defunct Clinchfield Railroad. He assembles the best crew and equipment, but departure is delayed by a fire in the private railcar. After a brief, inconclusive nvestigation, the trip begins, only to be interrupted when a freak accident leaves a team member in critical condition. Encouraged by the injured party to continue, the professor proceeds until a mysterious death puts a permanent end to the trip. The professor’s research turns to real life crime and the solving of a mystery that may end up costing more than he’s willing to pay.
This paragraph could still use tweaking, but it’s a good start. It will serve as a guide when the time comes to write the novel. When the novel is finished and ready to pitch, this paragraph summary can be easily tweaked into back cover copy or a promotional paragraph.
Next week, we’ll look at another mystery from my collection. Click here to read the post on Single Sentence Summaries for next week’s idea.
Clinics In This Series
Week 1: What is a Paragraph Summary and Why Should You Care?
Week 2: Developing a New Story
Week 3: Improving a First Draft
Week 4: An Alternative to Paragraph Summary