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Six Easy Steps to Writing Plot Summaries

Table of Contents

Have you been tasked to write a plot summary but don’t know where to start? Maybe you’re left wondering, How do I write a plot summary ? Well, this article is here to help you out. We’ve laid out some simple steps to help you write a comprehensive and exciting summary.

A plot summary should briefly summarize the story’s main elements, including the main characters, setting, and conflict. It should also include an overview of the plot, focusing on main events and leaving out non-essential details.

It doesn’t need to be all that complicated. Follow the few easy-to-remember steps in this article to outline your plot in a way that keeps your reader engaged.

A keyboard placed next to a notebook and some glasses.

Main Elements of a Plot Summary

The plot summary starts with a summary explaining the story’s premise. This is where the protagonist and other main characters are briefly introduced. The setting and the central conflict are also briefly introduced at this point.

Make a list of the major characters that will be a part of your story. Consider their backstories, physical descriptions, motivations, relationships with other characters, and the role they will play in the story. You don’t need to make this for every minor character unless they have a substantial role in the plot.

Note where and when your story is going to take place. You can even create a list of critical locations complete with their descriptions.

Scene-by-Scene Breakdown

Your plot summary is determined mainly by what will happen in your story. This will provide you with a valuable overview of your narrative. And it will allow you to plan the drafting process and spot any inconsistencies.

How Do I Write a Plot Summary

Now it’s time to answer that question that’s been bugging you: How do I write a plot summary?

The summary of your plot needs to cover all the main points in the storyline . Here are six simple steps that you can follow when making a summary of your plot.

1. Thoroughly Review the Material.

Whether it’s your story or another author’s, review it thoroughly. You must understand the plot, the characters, their motivations, and the overall message that the author attempts to convey. This will make it easier to summarize the story.

2. Make a List of the Critical Points.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when summarizing a long story. The best solution to this is to make a list of all the critical points. Once you’ve created your list, review it to ensure you haven’t missed anything.

Concentrate on the main points. You can use short phrases or bullet points to fill in details of the content that you know is essential to understanding the plot.

3. Summarize the Exposition

The exposition refers to the first few parts of the story. You can consider it as an introduction, setting the stage for what’s about to happen.

In this part, the protagonist meets their problem, their central struggle. There’s a lot of information in the prologue and the first chapter, and it’s essential to showcase the protagonist’s struggle in your summary. The elements of the exposition should support the protagonist.

4. Define the Inciting Incident

After a summary of the exposition, shift focus to the inciting incident that changes the story’s direction. An incident like this kicks off the story and brings about the central conflict within the novel. This leads to rising tension that continues to build the story.

Eventually, it will come to a point where the main character may have to take drastic action — or miss an opportunity. A comprehensive plot summary describes the inciting incident briefly and outlines the events that lead to the highest point of action.

5. Discuss the Climax

The climax of the story is a significant turning point in the plot. It could be a major setback or challenge that the protagonist needs to overcome. This event changes how a story plays out, for better or worse. In your summary, try to discuss the climax and cite how it affects the overall plot.

6. Tie It up With a Conclusion

The conclusion is where the protagonist’s journey comes to an end. Your conclusion won’t always be the happy-ever-after ending that many readers expect and hope for. Instead, it is more of a finale, which causes the fate of a plot to be determined.

The protagonist usually comes to a new understanding or realization that they did not have at the start of the novel. Make sure to highlight the lessons they learned in your summary.

It is essential to discuss the events in the story and demonstrate how the characters are interrelated and driven by the events.

Consider the main points of the narrative arc when summarizing events in a story. Follow these six easy steps, and you’ll be well on your way to an excellent plot summary .

Six Easy Steps to Writing Plot Summaries

Abir Ghenaiet

Abir is a data analyst and researcher. Among her interests are artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing. As a humanitarian and educator, she actively supports women in tech and promotes diversity.

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How to Write a Plot Summary

Writing a book summary may seem simple -- if you take that to mean simply regurgitating the events within a story. However, it's important to not only discuss the events of a story but also demonstrate understanding of how the events are interrelated and driven by the characters involved. When summarizing the events in a story, focus on the main points of the narrative arc.

Summarize the Exposition

The exposition is simply the beginning of a story, in which the author "sets the stage" for the events to come. The characters and setting are introduced, and the main conflict of the story is hinted at. For example, a summary of the exposition of "The Great Gatsby" could read, "A young businessman, Nick Carraway, moves to Long Island in the 1920s and meets Jay Gatsby, a rich bachelor with a mysterious past." Introducing the main characters, the setting and the plot allows the reader to understand the main context of the story.

Define the Inciting Incident

After a summary discusses the exposition, shift the focus to the inciting incident and the rising action within the story. The inciting incident is a singular event that "kicks off" the story and leads to the major conflict within the novel. This leads to the rising action, in which the story continues to build and eventually comes to a point where the main character might have to take drastic action -- or might miss her opportunity to do this.

For example, in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the Danish prince discovers that his father was murdered by his own brother, which leads to the infamously tragic events to come. The revelations of the inciting incident and rising action result in events that may alter the future in unchangeable ways. A comprehensive plot summary defines the inciting incident, briefly describes it and outlines the events that lead to the highest point of action.

Discuss the Climax

All stories eventually reach a "point of no return," the climax. The climax is an event that changes the course of a story, for better or worse. For example, the climax of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" happens when Romeo murders Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, in a duel. In your plot summary, define the consequences or results of this point in the plot. Although Romeo and Juliet's romance had been forbidden, it becomes near impossible to maintain after Tybalt's death, since Romeo is banished to Mantua. His banishment furthers the symbolic divide between the two feuding families. The climax often changes the characters and can set off a chain reaction of events.

The falling action of a story is the "fall out" that comes as a result of the climax -- the chain reaction. In "Romeo and Juliet," the falling action is so dramatic -- the tragic suicides of the young lovers -- that people might think this event is the climax; however, this famous tragic scene is the result of the events triggered in the duel of the climax. The plot's resolution is not always as "happily ever after" as the phrase suggests. The resolution show how characters respond to the events that transpired earlier in the narrative arc.

For example, as the curtains close at the end of "Romeo and Juliet," the two families vow to end their feud. Although this does not bring their children back to life, it suggests a social change brought about by tragic loss. In your plot summary, explain how characters respond to the events of the story -- and what, if any, lessons they may have taken away from the experiences.

  • Ohio University: Analyzing a Story's Plot: Freytag's Pyramid

Matt Duczeminski is a before- and after-school tutor and supervisor for the CLASP program in the Cheltenham School District. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz's Master of Science in education (Literacy, B-6), Duczeminski has worked in a variety of suburban areas as a teacher, tutor and recreational leader for the past eight years.

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brief plot summary

Learn how to prepare and write a synopsis assignment.

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A synopsis is a brief summary which gives readers an overview of the main points. In an academic context, this is usually a summary of a text (a journal article, book, report etc) but in some instances you might be writing a synopsis of a talk, film or other form of presentation. A synopsis is a neutral summary, objectively capturing the main points, rather than your own perspective or critique, and it focusses directly on the text you’re summarising rather than being a wider discussion of a topic, as an essay might be.

A synopsis aims to give the reader a full, if brief, account of the whole text so that they can follow its main points without having to read it themselves. It’s not a ‘trailer’ designed to tempt your audience to read the text itself, so you don’t have to worry about ‘hooking’ them in with hints and high points or ‘spoiling the ending’ - give the whole text equal coverage, including the conclusions. You could add some commentary which gives the reader a bit of context about the text, including the authors and circumstances it was written in (for example, if it is part of a debate, particular school of thought or its significance and what impact it’s had).

Writing a good synopsis is a skill, and there are a number of challenges: 

  • Separating the main points from the minor detail
  • Knowing what to leave out as well as what to include
  • Giving a sense of the overall narrative as well as listing the key points
  • Covering the whole text within a small word limit
  • Knowing how closely to stick to the original, especially in terms of the wording
  • Whether to give all key points equal treatment, or cover some more briefly, even combining them
  • Rephrasing things concisely without losing the meaning or misrepresenting it
  • Not leaving out anything crucial to understanding the whole overall message

A good synopsis will allow the reader to feel as if they’d skimread the whole text themselves, understanding the overall gist and highlighting what they need to know. A poor synopsis will get bogged down in detail, giving a confused account of the whole story by just listing points, miss out major points or give an inaccurate or one-sided account or stick so closely to the original that it becomes plagiarism without demonstrating a real understanding by the person summarising it.  

How to prepare a synopsis

Boiling down the key points and overall narrative of the original means good reading and note-taking skills which aim to identify and boil down key points to their essence. You could try some of the following approaches: 

  • Read the whole text, and afterwards, without re-reading, jot down your first initial summary in 50 words to capture its overall point. You can check it back for accuracy or anything you left out, but stick within ca 50 words
  • Read the introduction and first line of each paragraph to get a sense of the overall structure and key points within it
  • Highlight one sentence in each paragraph that you think is essential detail to understanding that section
  • Alternatively, with a marker pen, cross out anything that isn’t essential to an understanding of the whole section or text 
  • Jot down only key words as a summary of each point rather than whole sentences
  • Read each paragraph and summarise it without looking, in one sentence of your own 
  • Consider how many points you can make within your word count, and reduce or combine your list of summarised points down to this number

You could start small, identifying just keywords or sentences at first and then work them up into phrases, bullet points and sentences as a rough plan or draft, or you could start big with the original text and reduce each section, paragraph and sentence summary again and again until you have boiled it down to its essence.  

When you start to prepare your first plan or draft, try to use your notes or memory and step away from the original as much as you can. You can go back and check it afterwards, but you need to create some distance to be able to create your own account and have confidence in the points you have identified as essential.

Writing a synopsis

The main decisions facing you as you write up your summary are about how closely to stick to the original in terms of structure and style, and how much attention to give to each point. 

  • You could begin your synopsis with a brief context, explaining who the authors are, the context and significance of their work, as well as anything you think might help the reader to understand the following summary
  • The most common structure is to follow that of the original text, to give a sense of its narrative flow as well as the key points within it. You could choose to depart from it a little though, perhaps glossing over some points faster than others, combining two sections which go together or aren’t enough in their own right, possibly even changing the order a little where it helps to combine two similar points. Careful use of signposting language will help the reader clearly follow the structure (and note anywhere you’ve changed it from the original) so they can identify the bit you’re talking about in the original if they want to
  • The style will naturally be strongly influenced by the original wording, but you should phrase it in your own words wherever possible. It’s harder to nibble away words from a much longer original than it is to start again and use your own concise phrasing, and you want to demonstrate your own understanding to the reader. You could use the odd original phrase or quotation here or there, but the synopsis needs to be more than a collage of quotations; it’s a thing in its own right rather than a cut-down version of the original
  • You can also show your own response to the text in the way you use language to guide the reader to what you feel are the key points and (briefly) why. Your own voice doesn’t need to be very obvious in the synopsis, as it’s about the text rather than your reaction to it, but you have made analytical decisions about what is important, and might want to explain to the reader why these points are significant in understanding the whole
  • What is the main purpose of this text? What did it aim to discover, explain or prove?
  • Why was this research done? How significant is it?
  • How was the research conducted? What kind of research is it?
  • What were the three (or four, five) main things I should be aware of from this paper?
  • What is their line of argument?
  • What is their overall conclusion, recommendation, finding? Why is that important?

Managing word count

The trick to writing a concise synopsis which keeps within your word limit is not to start from the much bigger original text, but from your own boiled down notes. If you’re over the word count, you could start cutting out words that don’t seem essential, but if you go too far, you end up with a text which does not read well and doesn’t hang together. It might be better to remove whole sentences and perhaps whole points, than nibble away at words here and there.

Download this guide as a PDF

Learn how to prepare and write a synopsis assignment. **PDF Download**

How to Write Novel: Step 4

Write a short synopsis, this article is available in video format.

In this novel writing step, we’re going to create a single page outline of the entire plot of the novel.

brief plot summary

What is a short synopsis?

A short synopsis is a single page summary of your novel’s plot. All the important events should be included.

It should not include all of the detail and nuance of the story. It won’t include subplots or non-major characters.

A short synopsis is usually around 500 words long.

What is a short synopsis useful for?

A short synopsis has two major purposes.

The first is useful before you have completed your novel. It is to act as an anchor and guide as you are writing your novel, to ensure the story starts off with and maintains a solid structure, and has clear direction.

The second becomes important after you have finished your manuscript. It is to demonstrate to agents and publishers that your novel has structure and direction, without them needing to read the whole novel to find out.

You may tweak these two documents slightly so they’re not identical, but in essence they can be very much the same.

How do I write a short synopsis?

If you have followed the previous steps of this roadmap, or have used your own plot outline, then that’s a good place to start with your short synopsis.

Simply take each of the elements of the plot outline and expand them into a paragraph or so.

For example an element of your plot outline might be:

"Ben gets a distress message from the Princess and asks Luke to journey with him to help save her but Luke says he can't leave his folks."

This would now be expanded to explain how this key event happens:

"The droid R2D2 escapes and Luke follows him out into the desert where he is attacked by sand people. Ben rescues him and they hide in Ben's cave. R2 shows Ben the message from the princess where she asks for help. Ben shows Luke the lightsaber and asks him to come with him to save the princess. Luke knows he can't leave his uncle to handle the farm alone and so says he can't go."

If you haven’t already got a plot outline, then you can either write the synopsis freeform, or you can use this rough structure:

brief plot summary

Paragraph One – The Status Quo

What is life like for the protagonist at the beginning of the story?

Paragraph Two – The Complication

What happens to show that this is no ordinary day?

Paragraph Three – Initial Challenges

What obstacles does the protagonist have to overcome early on in the story?

Paragraph Four – Mid Point

What major event happens roughly halfway through the story?

Paragraph Five – Further Challenges

What further setbacks and obstacles does the protagonist have to overcome?

Paragraph Six – The Low Point

What happens to make the protagonist feel like all hope is lost?

Paragraph Seven – The Climax

What is the final conflict the protagonist must face?

Paragraph Eight – The Resolution

How does the story end?

What are some dos and don’ts about how to write a short synopsis?

brief plot summary

The synopsis is not prose, this is no place for dialogue or fancy descriptions. To begin with the synopsis can be nothing much more than a list of the major events in the order they happen. Keep the writing simple and succinct.

While writing the short synopsis you'll probably have loads of ideas that there just isn't room to fit onto one page, that's okay. Write down just the key points and keep the rest bubbling in your mind, you'll have use for them later.

The story should really start to take shape at this point, and writing the short synopsis should be a great deal of fun.

In the Novel Factory, go to the Premise and Synopses section. In the Short Synopsis panel, write a short synopsis based on your Plot Outline or the structure listed above.

Or, you can use the PDF Short Synopsis worksheet available here .

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