What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

The Plot Thickens

When you sit down to write a book review, you never know whether or not your readers have read the book you are reviewing. In fact, one of the main reasons people read reviews is exactly because they haven’t a read a particular book -- they want to know what someone else thinks about it first.

Because of this reality, almost every book review contains some kind of information about the plot usually in the form of a plot summary. But how long should your summary be? And how should you go about writing it?

A summary is a brief retelling of a longer text. The average adult novel is 100,000 words. So how long should a summary be? 50,000 words? 10,000 words? 5,000? 500? How about 50? Here are three important things to consider:

Hit the highlights. Only include the most important aspects of your book in your summary. Don’t worry about all the little things that happen.

Support your important points. What you decide to include in your plot summary should be determined primarily by which parts of the book you plan to comment on in your review and the arguments you plan to make about them.

Don’t spoil it. Don’t tell your readers anything about the book that might spoil it for them. After all, the purpose of writing a review is to help readers decided which books they might want to read -- not to do the reading for them!

For some reason I’ve never quite figured out, young readers like to do long plot summaries -- very long plot summaries. It seems like they want to keep adding more details until their summaries are so fat and thick I feel like the kids I’m working with want to rewrite the entire novel for me. This is not necessary. If I’m that interested in the book, I’ll read it myself, thank you very much. So, as a rule of thumb, I suggest to students that no more than 25% of a review be devoted to the plot. Keep your plot summaries clean and lean. Don’t let them swell to gargantuan proportions and take over your entire review.

Summarizing Strategies

There are many ways to summarize a book. But here are two that seem to work well.

(1) The One Paragraph Wrap-Up

This one is just what it says it is: a quick overview of the entire book in a single paragraph. This is my personal favorite as it leaves the rest of your review for comments and insights -- the stuff review readers want to know most.

Here’s a summary of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby, Age 8.”

   “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” is about a girl in third grade. She started school with a surprise gift from her dad, only to have it stolen by a boy she called “Yard Ape.” One day at lunch she tried to be cool and show off for her friends by cracking an egg on her head and found herself in a big mess. When flu season hit she learned how awful it felt to throw up in class. As time goes on, Ramona and her family solve their problems, and learn to be more caring for each other. They also learn to be more considerate for each other when time alone is needed.

(2) The Teaser

In this approach, the reviewer draws you into the story and then leaves you wondering about the end.

This is a summary of two very similar books (“The Golden Touch” and “The Chocolate Touch”) a reviewer was reviewing in what I like to call a “double book” review.

    These two books are about some greedy people. One is a boy named John Midas, the other is a man named King Midas. John LOVES chocolate. I mean absolutely LOVES chocolate. And the king was filthy rich with gold. One day they each got a taste of there own medicine because they were so greedy.
    John was on his way to a friend’s house when he decided to take a different route. He ran into a candy story and that’s where his chocolate touch began. Whatever he put into his mouth it turned to chocolate. And the king? Well, Midas was sitting in his treasure room dreaming about all his gold when he looked up and saw a stranger standing next to him. And that’s where his golden touch began.
    They liked their touch… for a while. But then one day, a terrible thing happened. Now you read the rest of these books to find out what those terrible things were.

Getting Started

A great way to teach yourself how to summarize a novel is to tell someone about it out loud. Give yourself a short time limit, like a minute, and force yourself to cover the entire book in that short time. You’ll naturally create a summary that works. Then, just write it all down.