The Easy Summarizing Tool

Young readers often confuse paraphrasing and summarizing a story. I teach summarizing on the first day of school. Each student reads whatever they want for ten minutes. When the timer goes off, they thirty seconds to summarize the story. In the past, we heard the extremes. One kid replied with a three-word sentence. Another shared the highs, lows, plot twists, and every interesting detail until the timer cut them off. While both amused their peers, they missed the mark. Now I teach a classic formula for summarizing.

A summary is the bare-bones details about a story. One method used to strip away the engaging elements of a story is Somebody Wants But So (SWBS). 

Somebody-the character who has the highest stakes in the passage

Wants-the desired outcome, which points to the motivation

But-the conflict

So-the next steps the character takes as a result of the conflict. 

Generating Ideas for Writing with SWBS

We can reverse engineer a story idea with SWBS. I take some of the ideas from a list of topics that interest them to help with a story. In this example, I used cereal. Within seconds I took a random topic and created an SWBS summary of what I wanted to write. 

IMG 3517 1

Somebody: me 

Wanted: Frosted Flakes

But: my husband ate the last of them and used all the milk. 

Within seconds I had the start of a story. 

“It was a lovely Tuesday morning. The chill in the air dared me to get out of bed. Challenge accepted. It was going to be a good day because I am the boss of me. So, I stumbled to the coffee pot, pressed the magic button, and made my go-go juice. Next was breakfast. Boy, my bossy self was in for a surprise. Somebody kidnapped Tony the Tiger!”

student sample

If I had more space, I’d go into the cause and effects that ensued. You’ll notice that my voice slipped the theme in there. “I’m the boss of me.” This story has the potential of showing how I’m not in control like I thought I was, or I was in control of my attitude despite my actions. 

Because we practice it with what other authors have written, the kids adopt the skill quickly.

This student asked that I point out that the story extended to the bottom of the next page. 

Using SWBS for Troubleshooting Writer’s Block

The SWBS strategy is great for brainstorming ideas, but it is also useful for diagnosing writer’s block causes.  

Brainstorming ideas
Brainstorming ideas

During Nanowrimo, we used SWBS as a template for our discussions. 

When I find a scene or chapter dragging, my character doesn’t have a motivation, a.k.a. the want or the conflict is missing. 

My first question to the student who is stuck starts with the want. What is your character trying to accomplish? 

Then I’d ask why. That remedied most writer’s block barriers. Showing (not telling) the why, also known as motivation, helped my students write a richer story. They understood their character and could elaborate on their reactions to the conflicts. 

The B, or but, of SWBS explains why the character is experiencing difficulty achieving the want.

 I tell my students, “Treat your main character like a younger or older brother or sister. Never give the character what they want.” The obstacles keep the reader engaged. They also open the character to negotiations with themselves and the problem. 

Keep in mind; an obstacle could be another character, nature, the character’s internal conflict, or society. Showing how any one of those four elements forces the character into proving the want is worthwhile pulls the story.

This is where we’ll close our writing discussion for now. If you’re brainstorming or stuck, remember Somebody, Wants, But, So (SWBS). This classic reading comprehension tool is also an excellent method for helping authors explore ideas for their stories. 

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