Book Summaries: The Two Sentence Plot

Have you ever asked a student what a book is about?   Often when I ask that question I get not what the book is about, but instead a long description of everything that happened. Essentially, kids retell me the entire story.

I realized in listening to these retellings and in reading essays and watching presentations, that my students struggled with the essence of elements of plot and theme, essentially the book jacket summary.  I found this particularly true of students as they moved into longer writing formats. The daunting longer essays expected in middle school and then high school seemed to produce long-winded explanations from my students just to fill the page.

One day, while listening to one of these retellings, I asked the student what would they would need to know about the book before they read it. I got a better summary, although still with a spoiler.  So, I kept tweaking this idea of a short introduction to a book until students could come up with the essentials. I call it the two sentence plot (you can also use it for the other elements of a novel).

What to do:

  • Ask the students to write no more than two sentences that tell what happens in a story (or about the idea or setting or character). 
  • That's it. 
  • The only guideline is that they can't use more than two sentences.
  • Then, and only then, do students start writing their reports, organizing their presentations, or working on their book projects.  

  • Romeo and Juliet: a girl and boy from feuding families fall in love.  Their love proves to have dire consequences.
  • The Giver: a boys understanding of his world is disrupted when he takes on the memories of the world. He is forced to decide what kind of world he wants to live in.
  • Counting by 7s: Multiple tragedies bring together an unlikely group of misfits. New understandings about the meaning of family are discovered.

 The idea is to use these short pieces as a guide for the essence of what they want to convey- what are the most important elements of the book. Since I started these short and sweet summaries, the quality of work has been much higher, and because now I am not told the entire story before I read a book, my students have introduced me to many wonderful new pieces of literature.

And, you can really have fun with it by having students write 2 sentence summaries of different books and then post on a What I am Reading bulletin board.  My students and I have discovered many books through these 2 sentence summaries.