How do I write a summary of a piece of literature?

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wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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When summarizing a piece of literature it is best to start with (1) a paragraph on the mise-en-scene – where and when in space and time the piece takes place.  (2) Then address the main characters – the protagonist first.  (3) Then state what the conflict is, what moves the plot forward.  (4) Give some but not too many details of the highlights of the plot – where impediments stop the protagonist as he/she struggles with the conflict.  If the summary is long enough, (5) finish with a short paragraph on the “meaning” or “lesson” built into the action.  (6) In many cases, you can finish with a broad statement about the importance of the philosophical point of view this piece represents.  Example:  Moby Dick takes place in the 19th century world of the New England whaling industry.  The trials of Captain Ahab as built around his obsession with killing Moby Dick.  First, he must gather a crew (including the narrator, Ishmael); then he must locate the whale.  When he does, the whale proves indomitable, and Ahab is caught in his own lines.  The story’s importance in American literature cannot be exaggerated.  The symbolic overtones of Man’s will against God’s makes the story a perfect example of American saga realism.  As a statement of belief in forces larger than ourselves, it is a classic. (This is just a quick example of the steps toward a successful summary.)

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