When we read the summary on the back of a book, or in a promotion for the book, or hear someone else talk about it—we instantly form a vague picture of what we expect the book to be. Hearing about a romance prompts visions of cute banter, poetic confessions, and steamy scenes (depending on what kind of romance is described). Hearing about a serial killer prompts visions of heart-pounding suspense, creepy characters, and gory violence.
But a lot of times, what we expect isn’t what we get—or what we want. Sometimes a book surprises us for the better, becoming something we didn’t see coming but that we like even more than we could have imagined. This is often the case with stories that are original enough not to prompt a lot of expectations. But sometimes a book surprises us with a bit of disappointment—the summary that got us so excited for the story ends up not quite describing the story you get.
Often, it’s not a fault of the author, the summary, or the book. It’s about what you’re looking for, what you like, and what certain words and suggestions in the summary mean to you. For example, a fan of romance might read a summary about a team of male and female reporters and expect romance, because that’s what they like—even if the summary barely discloses more than the fact that there’s a man and a woman and they share page time. A fan of action might read a summary of a movie about a man searching for his wife’s killer and expect a revenge fantasy—even if the movie ends up being a character-driven legal drama.
That’s why I’ve always said that what draws us to a summary is a good indicator of what we truly like, sometimes even more than what we like after the fact of reading something.
For example, I want to talk briefly about the book The Night Circus. The first thing I want to say is that I really enjoyed the book; it is extremely well-written, beautifully atmospheric, original, and lovely. But I have to say that when I read it, I was a little bit disappointed. See, the first time I encountered the book was in a very brief summary in O magazine, I think, that described it as something like: “Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games as two magicians fall in love as they battle in a mysterious circus.” So what I’m picturing are action-filled magic battles in a gladiatorial circus between star-crossed lovers… That’s not exactly what the book is. But, it’s important to say, the latter part of that summary is absolutely right—it is about two magicians battling in a mysterious circus who fall in love. But it’s more literary, more character-driven, the romance is slower and not really the center of the story, and the reference to The Hunger Games especially is really off-base.
So why bring it up? Well, my excitement about what I thought that summary was going to lead to tells me that I appreciate a little bit more action and plot rather than atmosphere and poetry. Again, I really enjoyed what The Night Circus ended up being—but the book I imagined it to be… might have been more my style. So in crafting my own works, I should keep in mind what really excites me.
When a book or movie seems to pull a bait-and-switch (and I want to add it’s hardly ever the story’s fault—it’s either bad marketing or just a miscommunication), take a moment and figure out what you thought you were going to get from the story—what you wanted that you didn’t get. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where you went into something not expecting much and got pleasantly surprised—in that case, what was there that you ended up really loving?
These are great little opportunities to figure out what you really like—especially when just asking yourself isn’t always an easy option.