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Writing A Chapter Summary For Your Novel, by Kate Belle (guest article)

Writing a novel of any serious length is an exercise of nerve and madness in equal measure. Once a story goes over about 40,000 words complexities sneak in that are easy to lose track of. The first draft or two can leave an author feeling overwhelmed with detail. Matters of timing, who said what to whom when, maintaining consistent character arc’s and convincing world building can  make you feel as though the story is lumpy or frayed at the edges.

So much is required to pull a novel into a believable shape from its sloppy beginnings that it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. The unwieldy first or second draft has flabby bits, slow bits, inconsistent bits, even wrong bits. In my latest work in progress (WIP) I realised I changed my characters’ surnames half way through the novel!

Tackling this enormous mess of words and whipping it into shape can be an onerous process, but it must be done if your reader is to enjoy the tale you have to tell. The slow way is to read through the novel from beginning to end, mark it up by hand or track changes in your word processor, go back and make the changes, then repeat and repeat until you feel you’ve ironed out the problems in the manuscript. This is approach is fine, but it takes a lot of time, and changes deeper into the manuscript can require further revisions earlier on.

One simple way of wrestling with novel revision is to use a chapter summary, or as my former teacher Andrea Goldsmith calls them, Where Am I Now? (WAIN).

What is a chapter summary?

While the concept of a chapter summary is relatively simple, as a tool it can be incredibly powerful. It’s equivalent to a novel outline, only it’s done after the first draft is complete. Rather than guiding the story, a chapter summary gives you a wide angle view of your WIP, a way of seeing the whole as opposed to only its parts. A good chapter summary will reveal gaps in plot or subplot, biases in POV, sagging action, mistiming and missing information, among many other things.

As with most writing tools, there are many ways to skin this cat, and all of them are wrong except for the one that works best for you and your current manuscript. Here I will set out the basics, with some options for different ways to approach a chapter summary, but I encourage you to test it out yourself and fiddle until you develop a format that suits your style of working and your current WIP.

Essentially a chapter summary captures the core elements of plot development contained in each chapter. You read through your manuscript and make notes at the end of each chapter of the most important aspects of the story you’ve given the reader. Who is telling this part of the story? Where is it set? What are the most important things that happen? When is this part of the story set? What other characters grace the stage in the chapter?

What information does it include?

The most basic of chapter summaries will include things like point of view, setting, timing, and core action. Depending on the nature of the WIP, other elements relevant to the story can be included, for example, global events and current affairs, sub plots, theme development, character motivations, secrets and lies, or weather to name a few.

The scope of a chapter summary is endless, which is why you should think carefully about what you want to get out of it before setting one up. If your WIP is part of a series, you may need to link elements of the story to events or characters in previous or future books. Add as many headings/topics as you need to capture the information that will give you a helicopter view of your work, but don’t crowd it. Too much information defeats the purpose. The idea is to keep it as simple and clean as possible, and keep it to one or two sheets of paper.

What does a chapter summary look like?

A chapter summary can look as simple as a word document with each chapter a heading followed by a short dot point summary of the action beneath it. For example:

Chapter 4

POV: Alice, Setting: Wonderland, When: 1 December

Characters: Alice, White Rabbit, Queen of Hearts

* Alice chases the White Rabbit into the Queen’s garden

* The Queen discovers Alice painting her roses and threatens to chop off her head

* Alice worries if she’ll ever escape

Alternatively, if you’re a visual person, get a poster size sheet of paper (A2 or larger) and divide it up into biggish boxes, one for each chapter. You can then show different points of view using different coloured pens, or different coloured highlighters to show the thread of plots and sub-plots. The benefit of doing it this way is each aspect of the WIP stands out visually. One look will tell you if one character has more air space than the others, or if a sub plot has fallen away only to be picked up again later.

While writing The Yearning I stuck a lot of A2 sheets together lengthways and created six columns: Chapter/Character/Narrative/Relationship/Time/Place. I selected a different colour for each POV and filled in the columns in for each chapter. By the time I’d finished I could see visually areas in the novel where one voice dominated the others and where I’d head hopped (call me a sinner!). It also showed me the places where I’d got seasons and timing wrong. I pinned it up on the wall next to me as I did my revisions so I had a visual guide as to where I needed to go to fix the big stuff, before going back to work on the small stuff in the manuscript.

If you’re not into hand writing in pretty colours, and not afraid of Excel, you might find the spreadsheet approach more valuable. The benefits of using this method is you can add and remove columns as you go along, and the whole thing tends to be smaller and more contained. And you can use colours too, if that floats your boat.

I’ve just completed a chapter summary for my current WIP using Excel. It’s a complex narrative, a structure that loops back on itself, and I found myself getting confused about the age of my characters when certain events took place. To reign in my confusion I decided to add a specific column for character age next to the timeline, as well as a ‘themes/motifs’ column to keep track of repeated images I’m using throughout the novel. My columns ended up looking like this:

Chapter, POV, Setting, Characters, Action, Themes/Motifs, Timeline, Character Age, Notes

The notes column was a useful addition to this particular chapter summary because it acts like a sticky note on the manuscript. It reminds me of something I need to think about, or fix, or refer to when I go back to revise that particular chapter.

With this A3 spreadsheet I can see at a glance where my characters are when and why. It shows me chapters where the theme doesn’t come through because the scene doesn’t work to reflect the deeper drivers in the story. I can also see scenes that don’t move the story forward and, no matter how much I love them, will have to be cut out.

The other benefit of doing a chapter summary for an early draft is identifying excess backstory or exposition. Early drafts are full of this material usually because the author is telling themselves the story as they write. It’s part of the writing process, but much of it isn’t needed in the reader’s version.

For instance, your chapter summary might produce a one line summary for a 5000 word chapter. On reviewing it you might find half of those 5000 words are backstory that’s holding up the narrative. If you leave it in you give your reader an excuse to put down your book instead of compelling them to turn the page. These lulls and hiccoughs in a narrative can be more easily identified when you see the big picture of the novel and can weigh the content of each chapter equally against the rest.

Finally, chapter summaries are very useful plotting tools. You will see immediately if you have a sagging mid-point, if your climax comes too early or too late, if the trigger event occurs before you’ve established reader empathy with the characters. It’s a great way to tighten up the plot and shift plot points around until they are perfectly placed so your story finds its natural rhythm and pace.

Whether you’re a panster or a plotter, a chapter summary is a fantastic way of getting a fresh, long-range view of your manuscript and can help in so many ways. It can even help you overcome writer’s block or to revise a manuscript that you just can’t seem to get a handle on.


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Guest Articles


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Writing Novels in Australia

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks Kate – Great post. A chapter summary sounds both versatile and practical.

    December 20, 2013
  2. Great article Kate. I use the spreadsheet approach, side effect of using them all day at work =)

    December 21, 2013
  3. Thanks Kate! So many useful ideas. I’m very visual so I can see the colour coding working for me!

    December 26, 2013
  4. Glad you all found it useful. It certainly helps to put the whole into perspective. Good luck with using the info, hope it works for you.

    January 6, 2014
  5. Fantastic article, Kate. I’m one of those authors who writes a really dirty first draft and then I have to stop myself from editing as I go because it’s a million miles from perfect. I already have worries seeping in about how I’ll manage revisions after I write ‘The End’.

    I think chapter summaries will really work for me, especially using Excel to track everything. It’s a weight off my shoulders. Thank you!

    January 8, 2014

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