Chapter Summaries, Who Needs ’em?

A friend said, “Never write chapter summaries. They suck the life out of the story.” I believe that’s only true if you hold yourself hostage to the summaries. In fact, I believe they are crucial. Let me tell you why.

person standing near trees
Photo by Miriam Espacio on Pexels.com

Starting Out

This fall and winter I began writing a chapter book with my six-year-old. It’s called Carla and Lola Go to School, But Where Is Miss Quimby?, which gives you a good idea of what it’s about. As with many books, the concept is sound. It’s the execution that will make the difference.

Before we attempted to write the book, I made sure we did what I tell all of my authors they must do:

We planned.

First we jotted down general ideas about what we wanted our book to be about, who the characters would be, and what the setting would be. We also set down what the four main obstacles would be, the general structure of the book, and how it would end. (Spoiler alert: They find Miss Quimby.)

At that point, my daughter was ready to dive in. We opened a new document and started to type. And that’s when I truly learned why writers need chapter summaries.

Amending the Plan

In our initial plan, we had agreed on one opening for the book, but once that first paragraph was written, we didn’t know where to go. My daughter, being six, forgot what we had planned and wanted Miss Quimby to be at school. To my daughter’s dismay, I put on the brakes. We had forgotten to write our chapter summaries!

Using paper and pen, we jotted down who the characters were in each chapter, what the obstacle or action would be, and how they would overcome it or carry it out. We also noted the setting for that chapter and made sure the timeline worked with what would come before and after.

Team Writing vs. Going It Alone

Because we were writing as a team, the summaries were even more important than for a solo writer. We needed to agree on what would happen before it was written or we would spend all of our writing time arguing it out. We would never finish.

However, even a solo writer needs to know where they want their story to go. And if you are like many writers, you might have to take a few days or even weeks away from your writing. How do you remember where you wanted to go if you didn’t record it somewhere? Based on what I’ve seen in my editing, writers’ memories may not be as good as they think.

In the case of my daughter’s book, as we were writing the summary for chapter 9, we realized chapters 8 and 9 needed to come sooner. That would tie the story line together much more neatly. How much easier it was to make that change when the “chapters” were only a paragraph instead of the full shebang! How much time and heartache we saved by making this decision now rather than after we had sweated over the writing!

The book has a long way to go. The chapter summaries are going to guide us on the journey.

Resources

Check out these resources to help you find your own way with chapter summaries:

How to Write a Book Proposal: Chapter Synopsis (video)

11 Ways to Outline a Book: Chapter-by-Chapter

Scrivener (writing software)

How to Write a Summary of a Book Chapter

How to Choose a Plot Outline Method: 4 Techniques for Outlining Novels

 

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Tracking Your Story’s Timeline

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Keeping a consistent timeline in your story is crucial to earning your readers’ trust. Readers will become frustrated if your characters seem to be jumping through the seasons at will or if too much has happened for only one week to have passed.

Although this may seem like a problem only novelists would confront, memoirists, short-story writers, and anyone else writing about events that take place over time need to pay attention to their timelines also.

If you haven’t kept your outline up to date while you’re writing, do what your editor will do. Go through the manuscript and note all of the plot points that hinge on or mention timing. Write down the date and season, and if needed, count the days and weeks (and hours?) that would have passed between plot points. Ensure that time is adding up correctly.

Be sure your list includes subtle references to time, such as holidays or the changing colors of the trees. These are time indicators just as much as a date and year and should be treated with care. If you have the leaves turning from green to red a scant two weeks before Christmas, your readers may wonder just where in the world your story takes place. For most of us, that is not the kind of thought we hope to provoke.

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