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How to Summarize a Short Story

Updated on January 31, 2013

Write a Summary for Homework

Have you ever wondered how to write a short story summary effectively? A summary, by definition, is a shortened description of a story's main points. But what are a story's main points? How do you determine what's important enough to be included? When and how do you start the actual writing, and what's the best format for a summary?

If your teacher has an assigned a short story summary as homework, there are strategies that will enable you to do a good job. Some students regard a story summary as the easiest of homework assignments, but the reality is that it can be deceptive in its simplicity. Don't be caught off guard; make sure you cover what needs to be covered. Because this is considered by many to be a simple assignment, it also may be one your teacher looks at carefully when grading. Here is an easy approach to writing a short story summary.

A Summary Relates to Plot

The first thing you need to know is that a summary relates to the plot of a story. The plot of a story is its sequence of events. It may be that your teacher has included directions about including some mention of theme or symbolism or moral, but if not, you should only focus on the plot of the story. These other elements are above and beyond plot; they are the consequences of the author's purpose, or what the author is trying to convey to the reader beyond the chosen plot. This may sound simple, but I have assigned many short story summaries in my own classes only to be rewarded with thematic responses, which were not what I was looking for.

Just remember, plot = events. If you stray from the events of a story, you're going beyond a basic summary of the story.


Take Notes While Reading

It's next to impossible to determine a story's main or important events while you're reading that story. I can think of several stories I assign that convey "misleading" details, or descriptions that seem important while you're reading them, but prove later to be irrelevant. This is why you can't expect to write your summary while you're reading the story. That said, you also can't expect to write an effective summary from memory. That's a recipe for disaster.

Assuming your teacher has given you no other directions, divide your note-taking into three basic categories: characters, settings, and conflicts. All stories share these traits; even stories that seem to have no characters contain places or objects that act as a characters. Create a three-column chart, and fill it with notes as you read through the short story. Include character descriptions, both wheres and whens of setting, and a catalog of problems, both large and small. Luckily, because of the story's short length, you should be able to fit all your notes on one side of a piece of paper, assuming you avoid big, loopy handwriting.


Step Away, Then Make Connections

My advice, once you are done with reading and taking notes on a short story, is to do something else for around twenty minutes. Readers tend to be affected by the outcome of a story in such a way as to warp a sense of its whole, so while some teachers might suggest plowing ahead, a mental break might do you good. Once you've had your rest, return to your notes, pen in hand.

If you've created a three-column notes sheet, then you have a good visual of the overall details of a story. Follow these steps:

1) Cross out the unnecessary or irrelevant details in all three columns. These are the details that seem to play no or little role on the path to the outcome of the story. Now that you're done reading, these will seem clear.

2) Connect the major characters to their settings and conflicts. You know these now that you are done reading, because they affect the outcome of the story. You can draw a line from left to right through these details. Make each line go through only three notes; choose the most significant setting and conflict to connect to each character.

3) Consider any leftovers. Why/how are they left? Are they, in fact, unnecessary to use while writing a plot summary, or did you make a mistake while drawing across your main connections? Revise, if necessary.


Write your Summary

Most teachers, when assigning a short story summary, have an expectation that you'll write one solid paragraph. If your assigned story is particularly long, you may need more, but don't bullet or outline your summary unless your teacher tells you to; this could result in you coming across as doing less than required.

Your remaining notes form the basis of your summary. Remember, you're going to use these details to focus on the events of the story, so don't go too far with individual descriptions of characters and settings. One line across the three columns should indicate the most important details when you consider the whole story. In other words, one line across should connect the protagonist (main character), the primary setting, and the central conflict. These details form the backbone of your summary. Start with a description of that main character, followed by the primary setting. Then use other lines of notes to include plot details to write a "lead-in" to your central conflict. Finally, "lead out," or continue to use any remaining notes to describe how the protagonist finds his/her resolution to the central conflict. Just always remember to bring your summary back to plot.

If you've followed these directions perfectly, your short story summary almost writes itself. It's possible, however, that you might go in a wrong direction at some point. If you do, revisit the notes you crossed off (perhaps prematurely). For most short stories, your summary should be at least 3/4 of a page, handwritten, or at least 1/2 a page, typed. Good luck!

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