Every Plot Summary Sounds Stupid (or, Why You Never Ask a Writer What Their Story is About)

I write books. I've finished one novel, I've got several others languishing in various stages of completion on my computer, and I technically have a published nonfiction book that I wrote but am never, ever allowed to name on this blog because that's how ghostwriting contracts work.

Despite the name, ghostwriting involves surprisingly few ghosts.

For most of my friends, acquaintances and rabid stalkers, I'm the only book-writing person they know. I don't blame them at all for being curious about it. I get it, it's a weird thing to do with your spare time. So I try to answer any questions as best I can. I can give an an explanation of the traditional publishing process. I admit to some of the not-so-pleasant realities of writing for money. I spread the word about online writing contests I have benefited from. I share all of my biggest writing triumphs and how I achieved them.

There's just one question I won't answer.

"What is your novel about?"

Don't. Fucking. Ask. That.

Seriously. Don't.

Okay, I should clarify. If you are really, really, biting-your-nails-to-the-first-knuckle, barfing-up-your-left-kidney anxious to know what my story is about, do me a favour: ask me in writing. An email is great. A message works too. When you ask a writer about their story in a setting where they 1) can take their time to respond and 2) don't have to say any of their characters' ridiculous names out loud, they can give you a good response. If you catch a writer in the querying stage of their manuscript's life, they can give you a painstakingly edited plot summary that brilliantly captures the story, characters, voice, setting, plot, emotion, themes and charm of their novel.

No one said it would be brief.

But if you ask me about my novel when we're walking down the street, I can't just halt the conversation so I can whip out my promotional materials and mechanically read off the adventures of my five-syllable characters. Oh, no. You are forcing me to awkwardly word-vomit a rapidly derailing train of thought all over you. My mouth will spew out disjointed settings, character names and events while my eyes plead with you to jam pens into my esophagus until this misery is over. And when I've stopped stuttering and blubbering and I've regained my composure, you will look at me with pity because you're convinced I've wasted the last two and a half years of my life flopping around on a keyboard like a sea lion until a story came out. 

And I will hate you a little bit for it. 

And no, I am not above taking horse-turd-based-arson revenge on your front porch.

It's not just me, either; every single writer I know hates being asked about their story on the spot. We are almost universally bad at it. And, really, it's not our fault. Because when it comes down to it, every single story sounds stupid as a plot summary. 

Don't believe me? Let's take a look at some of the greats, as explained by a caught-off-guard writer. 

The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)

"It's about this teenage boy, Holden, who forgets all of his fencing shit on a subway and gets kicked out of private school. But like, he's super close to Christmas vacation when it happens, and he hates his roommate because he doesn't like Holden's poem about his dead brother's baseball mitt, so Holden just leaves to go live in New York for a couple days by himself. So he gets there and he dances with these random tourist girls, and he hires a prostitute - don't worry, they don't have sex, he gets really sad about her dress instead - and he goes skating, ummm... he gets really drunk, pisses off this guy in a bar, checks in his luggage, wanders around for a while. I dunno, it doesn't really have a plot. But it has all these deep metaphors, like Holden pretty much complains about everything, and he has this thing where he wonders where all the ducks go in Central Park when the ponds freeze. Oh, he never actually finds out. But in the end, he realizes he just wants to stand on a cliff in a big field of rye and watch kids play, and when they start to run towards the cliff, he'll just like, reach out and stop them. Forever. So he takes his sister to the zoo and gets mad about graffiti, and then the novel just kind of reminds you that one day, you'll really miss people you used to know. Yeah. That's how it ends."

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (J. K. Rowling)

"So there's this guy named Harry Potter, and when he's a baby, this evil wizard murders his parents and tries to kill him. But he survives, and he gets rescued by this old guy with a magical lighter and a giant dude on a motorcycle. Harry is the most important magic person to ever live, ever, so they decide to dump him on these abusive relatives who hate magic. So he grows up his whole life thinking he's a freak, until the giant guy from the beginning shows up and tells him he's a wizard and they go off on this magic shopping trip so he can go off to wizard school. And he ends up at this wizard boarding school where no one ever has to learn anything but magic ever again, and there are all these monsters and evil wizards and weird things living in the forest. And he finds out that there's a magic rock that will make you live forever hidden inside a mirror somewhere in the castle, but his greasy teacher wants to steal the rock and give it to the evil wizard dude so he can kill Harry. So Harry and his friends sing to a giant three-headed dog, play a game of chess, fly around in a room full of flying keys and solve a riddle, and then Harry finds the rock and it turns out the teacher with the turban was the evil one all along. Weird, right? It'll sell millions."

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)

"Okay, so this book doesn't really have a plot. I mean, it technically does, but all the chapters are in the wrong order so you can't really tell what's going on. Just trust me, people will love it. I mean, it's hilarious. It's about this Serbian guy who's an American pilot in Italy in WWII, and the whole entire book is based around this one joke. See, if these guys keep flying dangerous missions over and over again, they're insane and they can go home, but if they fill out the paperwork to have themselves declared insane, it shows that they're sane after all, and they have to keep flying dangerous missions! Yeah, so that, for like 400 pages. Oh, but there's other stuff in there. Like, there's this guy named Major Major Major Major. Yeah, that's basically the joke. Oh, and there's this other guy who buys eggs for 7 cents each and turns around and sells them for a profit at 5 cents. And he buys all the Egyptian cotton. Literally all of it. Oh, and the main character runs around naked for a while because there's a dead guy in his tent. And everyone keeps signing the name 'Washington Irving' to everything, just because they feel like it! It's totally crazy." 

Under the Dome (Stephen King)

"There's this town in Maine, called Chester's Mill, and it's basically just a bitchy little shithole where everyone spends 100% of their time gossiping and sniffing each other's asses. And then one day this big giant dome comes down one day out of nowhere! It's crazy! There's all these truck accidents and plane accidents and stuff getting cut in half! Tons of people die. And then this guy, Big Jim, really wants to be in charge of the town. Well, actually, he wants to be second in command, but like, hold all the power secretly. So he starts murdering people and making them kill each other. And he has this son who keeps murdering people and keeping them in his friend's dead girlfriend's pantry so he can hang out with them. And there's this Christian meth-head who lives in a radio station with a shitload of propane. Oh, and the pastor gets clubbed to death with a novelty baseball. So eventually, all the food starts to run out in there, and the air quality gets really bad, and the dome gets so dirty that the sun gets pretty much blocked out, but it doesn't really matter because everything catches fire and they all die, except this one kid who hides in a bunch of potatoes. Oh, but you do find out about the dome in the end. It's just a really weird explanation that takes like, two pages to fix. I'm really confident that one day, this will get adapted into a TV show with a completely rewritten plot that has nothing to do with the book."

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)

"Well, it's a children's book, and it's all about gang warfare. There's these two rival gangs, the Greasers and the Socs, and the greasers come from a really poor part of town and the Socs are the rich kids. The main character is this kid named Ponyboy. He's like an orphan, but he's being raised by a brother named Darrel, and he has this other brother named Sodapop, and they eat chocolate cake every day. But anyway, the main character goes to the movies one night and meets these really pretty rich girls who a really nice to him. But then their boyfriends find out, and they think Ponyboy is trying to steal their girls. So Ponyboy goes home, but his brother freaks out and beats him, and he runs away. And these Soc guys catch him, and they try to drown him in a fountain, but his best friend shows up and stabs one of the guys to death. So Ponyboy and his friend go into hiding, and they see this church burning down with all these children inside, and the friend runs in and saves them and gets hurt. So he dies in the hospital in front of everyone. And their other friend gets so upset about it, he runs outside and pulls a gun on the cops and gets shot to death right in front of Ponyboy. And I guess that's pretty much how it ends. Yeah, I'm really hoping that schools will make all twelve-year-olds read this someday."

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)

"I, Kurt Vonnegut, am going to doodle randomly on the page and put some words around the pictures that explain things that don't really have much of anything to do with the story, which, when told straight-up, would barely fill the length of the average short story. I might pretend that my characters are real people for a while, if I feel like it. Oh, and I'm going to make myself a character in the story. No, not a character who is similar to me. I, Kurt Vonnegut, am going to appear in this story, as myself, and fuck shit up. Also, there is going to be a prominent drawing of a butthole. And you're going to love it."

Just look at that glorious butthole. 

How do you feel about giving a summary of your story? And what other stories can you think of with plots that sound dumb on paper? Leave it in the comments!


  1. This is one of the reasons I believe people think writers hate socializing. Stop asking me about my damn book. Read it, and then we can talk.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly! I can't talk about my work, people just have to read it.


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