IPT Writing Clinic Paragraph Summary – What is a Paragraph Summary and Why Should You Care?

A paragraph summary is a single paragraph that describes your novel in detail. It summarizes the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story as it applies to the lead character. It is, as you might guess, a For Your Eyes Only document during the writing process.

If you write a paragraph summary before you write the novel, the paragraph summary is the road map that guides you in writing or rewriting your novel.

If you write your novel first, paragraph summary can help you determine the strengths and weaknesses in the first draft and guide you through revisions in the second draft.

Do I Really Need a Paragraph Summary?

You may be perfectly capable of writing a story without a paragraph summary. Many successful authors work without a paragraph summary.

You can also revise, rewrite, and polish a novel without a paragraph summary. Again, there are a lot of authors who don’t bother with one before launching into revisions.

But you will need a paragraph summary when it comes time to pitch your novel if you choose the traditional publishing path. The paragraph summary plays a vital role in writing a proposal and, more importantly, convincing potential agents and publishers that your novel is worth a read.

A lot of contests and competitions also require a paragraph summary as part of the submission package.

So the short answer to the question “Do I really need a paragraph summary?” is, yes. Unless you self-publish, sooner or later, you will have to write one.

When Do You Write a Paragraph Summary?

The paragraph summary can be written at any point during the writing process. There is no Right Time. There is only the Best Time For You.

I like to develop a paragraph summary in the planning stages. It’s one of the tools I use to discover the story. It helps me determine whether or not the idea is worth pursuing. If the idea is worth pursuing, a paragraph summary is helpful in figuring out where a story might be headed and how it can be improved.

Once writing begins, keeping a printed copy of the paragraph summary where I can see it helps me make decisions about further development of the story.

What Goes Into a Good Paragraph Summary?

The key features of a good paragraph summary are:

  • Focuses on the lead character
  • Summarizes the entire story
  • Includes each of the three major turning points
  • Tells how the story ends
  • Ideally around 100 words

So How Do I Write a Paragraph Summary?

There is no hard-and-fast rule for writing a paragraph summary, but something that helps me comes from Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method of story design. Basically, he breaks the paragraph down into five sentences as follows:

1. The first sentence sets up the story, introduces the lead characters, and establishes story world.

2. The second sentence summarizes the beginning and presents the first disaster. This is the point at which the lead character leaves his regular life and “enters the fray”, if you will. If you like the three-act structure, this is the point at which the first act ends.

3. The third sentence is a summary of the story from the first disaster to the second disaster.

4. The fourth sentence is a summary of the story from the second disaster to the third disaster, or the point at which the second act ends and the final act begins.

5. The fifth sentence is a summary of the rest of the story. This tells how the story ends.

About This Clinic

Beginning with the next post, I’ll show you how to develop a paragraph summary using the same examples used in the first two weeks of the single sentence summary and turning points clinics.

The first week will focus on a story that’s in the initial planning stages. The single sentence summary is:

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.

(Click here to see how the single sentence summary was developed and here to take a look at the turning points.)

The second week will be a story that’s being reworked after the first draft and the single sentence summary is:

An accountant fired for account irregularities looks for a new beginning and uncovers familiar problems in the family business.

(Click here to see how the single sentence summary was developed. The turning points were developed over the course of three clinics, which you can read here, here, and here.)

In the third week, we’ll look at an alternative to paragraph summary that’s useful if you happen to be stuck on figuring out the major turning points.

If you would like to submit a single sentence summary, leave a comment in the comment box below. Comments of this type will not be published.

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

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