I had an interesting discussion the other night about the difference between a plot summary, and what a story's about. Being able to say what a story's about is the more important of the two, because anyone can repeat a plot, but it takes ability to understand what drives 90,000 words. It means not knowing what happens, but why it happens.
Often when people ask what a story's about, they hear in reply a blow-by-blow account of the plot; because plot is easy, but plot is the wrong answer.
To say what the story's about, describe what happens, but mention not more than one line of plot.
My only hints for doing it are to write a blurb that would fit on the back cover. Then think really hard about what's the core of the blurb. The one line of plot you're allowed is the crucial event, whatever it might be. I make no claims for expertise on this by the way, except that I've had to do it a few times. Eleven times, actually, only a few weeks ago.
Here's an example for Macbeth.
Well, there are these three witches, and they meet a guy called Macbeth, and...Macbeth and his wife murder the King, and then...bubble bubble boil and trouble...and then there's a killing spree...then a ghost turns up at dinner...then they get attacked by walking trees...
Here's what the story is about:
A respected power couple of the Scottish nobility are so consumed by ambition, that they throw away their ethics to murder their King and sieze the throne. Their crime creates an imbalance in the world which drags themselves and all of Scotland into tragedy.
Feel free to disagree with my about, but even if you do it's clear this is not plot, or if it is, it's the very core with the emphasis on motivation and consequence.
My dear agent has threatened to manually strangle me if I ever dare give anyone advice on how to get published because, you know, I am famous for my skills at querying. However I will risk almost certain harm by pointing out that in a query it's probably better to say what your story's about, and not try to summarise the entire plot.
Dear Ms Reid,
The Cawdor Crisis is a paranormal political thriller set in mediaeval Scotland [yeah, like that's ever going to sell]. A respected power couple of the Scottish nobility are so consumed by ambition, that they throw away their ethics to murder their King and sieze the throne. Their crime creates an imbalance in the world which drags themselves and all of Scotland into tragedy.
...then carry on with the mechanical bits of the query...
Here's an exercise to try. Feel free to use the comments. If you're writing one, tell us what your book is about.