What’s Your One-Sentence Summary?

It’s been quite a while since we talked about one-sentence summaries of a novel. In recent weeks, several folks have emailed me to ask when I was going to blog about this again.

If it’s been too long since you thought about one-sentence summaries, you can find the full scoop on my Snowflake page.

Let’s remember why a one-sentence summary is so valuable. By the way, this is sometimes called an “elevator pitch.” The theory is that if you’re at a conference and you meet an editor or agent in the elevator and they ask what you’re writing, you have time to say maybe fifteen words before the elevator dings open. This could happen, although it really is taking the small picture. There are SO many other uses for the one-sentence summary.

Let’s review those now. Remember that you need to sell your novel 7 times in order for it to be a commercial success:
1) You sell the idea to your editor.
2) Your editor sells the idea to the publishing committee.
3) Your editor later sells the idea to the sales team.
4) The sales team sells the idea to the buyers for the bookstores.
5) The buyers sell idea to the staff in the bookstores.
6) The staff sell the actual book to customers who come to the store.
7) Your readers sell the idea to their friends (this is called “word of mouth”)

The important point is that your book simply won’t do very well if ANY of those links in the chain don’t work (unless you get massively lucky). And please notice that only one of those links (#6) actually involves selling the BOOK. All the other links involve selling the IDEA of the book.

And you sell an IDEA with one sentence of just a few words. Trust me, your readers are not going to memorize a 200 word pitch when they tell their friends about this great book they just read. The typical reader will give a rambling account of the book UNLESS you give them something short and pithy and brilliant that they can use instead. Most often, that “something” is a one-sentence summary, although it can in principle be a title. Your readers are not marketing geniuses. They will not spend hours to figure out the perfect marketing hook for your story. You need to give that to them.

You do that by giving it to your editor, who can take it from there. Before you give it to your editor, you need to figure it out yourself.

At the most recent conference I went to, in Mount Hermon, California, I spent 8 hours mentoring a really lively group of 10 writers. I also spent half an hour with each writer in private appointments. Some of these appointments, we spent the whole half hour brainstorming up one-sentence summaries for their novels. I had required all of them to submit a one-sentence summary before the conference. With few exceptions, their sentences weren’t all that good. So it was fun to brainstorm up some improved versions. Thirty minutes thinking about a one-sentence summary may be one of the most productive half-hours you’ll ever spend. You may even find that you actually understand your book better when you have a great one-sentence summary.

So here’s my question for today: What’s your one-sentence summary?

If you’re bold, post it here. I’ll read all of them, and I’ll critique those that I think will be most educational to my loyal blog readers.

This is always a fun exercise for everybody, so go ahead and think hard about it, even if you don’t want to put up a comment here. You may be surprised at what you learn about your story.

76 Comments

  1. Chris March 26, 2008 at 11:58 pm #

    “A university student interns at a pharmaceutical company that is performing dangerous experiments on people”

  2. Daan Van der Merwe March 27, 2008 at 12:22 am #

    A successful lawyer vows to revenge the rape and murder of his wife and daughter.

  3. Camille March 27, 2008 at 1:00 am #

    Drat! I should’ve taken that mentoring track.

    “A resigned widower’s heart is mended by a woman who discovers she doesn’t have long to live.”

  4. Brett March 27, 2008 at 1:33 am #

    “A high school student possessed by the ghost of his older step-sister moves back to his hometown.”

  5. yeggy March 27, 2008 at 2:04 am #

    A naïve teenage girl searches for her parents in a post apocalyptic world.

  6. Hope Marston March 27, 2008 at 2:23 am #

    A young girl strives to earn her own calf as her family migrates westward during the winter of 1806.

  7. Livinus March 27, 2008 at 4:46 am #

    “African most endearing young researcher steals a secret manuscript, dating the time of the Algerian revolution against French occupation, to track down the leader of a weird anti-western civilisation movement and win the $120m reward the US is offering, little knowing who was behind the offer of his research grant and why.”

    Sorry folks, I know that this is too long, but I want Randy to tighten it up so we can all learn from it 

  8. Elizabeth March 27, 2008 at 5:12 am #

    A gay Air Force officer and a Catholic lesbian get married, and then she leaves him for her best friend.

  9. Mary DeMuth March 27, 2008 at 5:37 am #

    Emory Chance refuses to take the blame for her daughter’s death, but the guilt keeps slapping her every time she remembers Daisy’s face.

  10. Lynn Squire March 27, 2008 at 5:50 am #

    A bitter indentured servant strives for freedom while facing persecution and the loss of love and life.

  11. Parker Haynes March 27, 2008 at 5:54 am #

    Amanda searches for the reincarnation of her murdered lover from their previous life.

  12. Katie Hart March 27, 2008 at 5:54 am #

    “A warrior must ally with the son of her father’s murderer to prevent a coup.”

  13. Mark Goodyear March 27, 2008 at 6:09 am #

    Here’s my one sentence: “A dead man can’t escape his body until he saves two children he orphaned.”

    And Camille, you’re right. You should have taken Randy’s fiction mentoring track! There aren’t too many times any more that I come away from an educational experience having learned something completely new. Randy’s insights into plot have changed the way I think about writing and story-telling. Seriously. I feel like a giddy elementary school kid during my morning writing time.

  14. Karla March 27, 2008 at 6:26 am #

    A pastor’s wife joins a girl biker club and encounters new adventures that startle and shake up her husband’s church.

  15. Gary March 27, 2008 at 6:36 am #

    “You are me, and must kill you”

  16. Robert Treskillard March 27, 2008 at 6:58 am #

    This is REALLY hard, Randy. But you motivated me by your description of the “links” in the sales chain to the reader. Very helpful!

    I tried this “one sentence thing” before, and here was my first attempt:

    A mysterious black stone enslaves a village. A blacksmith’s son must destroy it—or die.

    After awhile though, I realized that I hadn’t really explained to the reader why they should care. One village? One death? Hmmmm … I needed to “up the ante” and reveal the true danger. So this is my latest:

    A swordsmith’s son must save the kingdom of Britain from a mysterious black stone’s enchantment.

    Thinking through this also helped me realize my need to make this “upped ante” theme more clear in the book. So you are right … focusing on distilling the story down to these few words makes you find the core of your story. Then if that core is weak, it reveals your need to rework that in the book.

    (I also noticed the duplicated “black” in my first attempt. Changing “blacksmith” to the more precise and evocative swordsmith solved that.)

  17. Jeffrey Ellis March 27, 2008 at 7:14 am #

    A research engineer and a Hopewell shaman, separated in time by 1800 years, work together to fight an ancient evil entity.

  18. Laura Drake March 27, 2008 at 7:32 am #

    A savy businesswoman dumps it all for aspirations to be a groom on a dude ranch.

  19. Myra Johnson March 27, 2008 at 7:51 am #

    An abandoned lake resort holds the key to a young woman’s past . . . and her future.

  20. Ed J. Horton March 27, 2008 at 8:01 am #

    Two men, an angry murderer seeking vengeance and an anxiety-ridden detective seeking peace, share an unlikely circumstance–the same son.

  21. Robert Treskillard March 27, 2008 at 8:07 am #

    With advice from my family, I changed my one sentence summary one more time. Here I bring out the Arthurian aspects of the story better, and also show the protagonist’s weakness:

    Merlyn, a blind swordsmith’s son, must save Britain from a mysterious black stone’s deadly enchantment.

  22. Sylvia March 27, 2008 at 8:43 am #

    Although she’s a believer in Christ, Marnia Drew seeks revenge for her father’s death in Africa, even contemplating murder.

  23. Sam March 27, 2008 at 9:08 am #

    Randy, Thanks so much for revisiting this topic.
    Following the advice from last year’s posts, I started with:
    High school students too busy “living each day like it will be their last”, struggle with getting involved with a serial killer investigation or hanging out with their friends.

    And ended up with:
    Even after witnessing a grisly murder, a high school senior can’t stop going out with his friends – a decision that could send the wrong man to jail.
    OR:
    A high-school senior struggles between his apathy for anything outside girls and fun and clearing a possibly innocent man of murder!

    By the way, how did you do with the bethenextbestsellingauthor contest? I never heard back from them after all the “Just a few more days” emails.

  24. sesgaia March 27, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    A single, working mother struggles with the powerful influence of a wealthy family on her teenage daughter.

  25. Hannah D. March 27, 2008 at 9:14 am #

    “A woman in her thirties finds herself without memory and goes on a journey to find her past, and while remembering her own story, she also discovers memories and that isn’t her own and some new skills.”

    I’m not sure what genre it will be yet. Possibly fantasy. And yes, it can probably be better formulated.

  26. Sheila Deeth March 27, 2008 at 9:17 am #

    A 50-year-old woman remembers a safe happy childhood in a good Christian home, and a secret.

    That’s my first novel, and this is my second…

    A neighborhood of strangers and friends sees romance, job loss, birth, deception and murder, and lives to tell the tale.

  27. Robert Treskillard March 27, 2008 at 9:17 am #

    OKAY … one more time. This time my last. Promise. My family pointed out an ambiguity in my last one. They couldn’t tell who was blind, so here is the final.

    “Blind Merlyn, a swordsmith’s son, must save Britain from a mysterious black stone’s deadly enchantment.”

    Like I said the first time. This is REALLY hard to do!

  28. Cathy March 27, 2008 at 9:35 am #

    This is the one sentence summary for a fanfiction story I’m working on; however, I’m considering turning this storyline into a Western novel as well.

    “An influencial rancher persists in a deception despite the risk of losing all he holds dear.”

  29. Andie Mock March 27, 2008 at 10:11 am #

    “A Fish Without a Bicycle”

    Autumn of 1970, in California’s Central Valley, a feckless teenager subverts the dominant paradigm while learning about love.

    This is a Young Adult novel with lots of tongue-in-cheek humor.

  30. Klara March 27, 2008 at 10:25 am #

    An AWOL army veteran is tracked down after years by a young gay soldier who risks his life and his heart to warn the veteran that the army wants him and his family of orphans back at any cost.

  31. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren March 27, 2008 at 12:02 pm #

    I wrote a one line (two liner) when I started writing. The plot has since changed a bit so here is a new version on the fly:

    A reluctant father has to step up and attempt an impossible rescue when his son is kidnapped by a couple from another dimensions.

    Working title: Mama Papa Proud

  32. John March 27, 2008 at 12:07 pm #

    As a total eclipse sends an alien planet into chaos, three people must survive and escape, but they all have pasts which came back to haunt them.

  33. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren March 27, 2008 at 12:28 pm #

    I think my back cover copy says some things better and other things not.

    Nathan Gillets is a librarian, a husband and a father to a three and a half year old son. Nathan and his wife are very ordinary, slightly boring people that live a simple life of work and weekends. They were thinking of having another son but his wife’s career suddenly took of.
    Suddenly Nathan’s son is kidnapped by a childless couple from an alternate reality in order to fulfill a prophecy. Nathan has to step up to find his son. He is not only forced to use unorthodox means but to change his belief about how the world works. At first failing to get help he is eventually forced to cross over to the other side himself.
    Now Nathan must struggle not only to find and return with his son but to cope with a different reality and identity. Will he find his son and will they be able to return? And does he see the disastrous concequences of events bearing down on him?

  34. Kayla March 27, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    A misplaced girl in a war-torn world is entangled in a chaotic adventure when she attempts to figure out her past.

  35. Lynda March 27, 2008 at 12:45 pm #

    Hey, Mark!

    Let’s see if I learned anything in the mentoring sessions:

    A professor, turned faith-dead assassin, struggles to avenge his family’s massacre while mysterious messages from antiquity try to heal his soul.

  36. Tami Meyers March 27, 2008 at 1:22 pm #

    Attempt #1. A letter from the past may lead to a cache of gold stashed in 1899 Placerville, California that has already cost one mans life.

    #2. A letter from the past may lead to a cache of gold that has already cost one mans life.

    I’ve tried for the fifteen word limit, but each attempt seems to weaken the impact of the sentence.

  37. Tami Meyers March 27, 2008 at 1:29 pm #

    Novel number two;
    One man is dead, two pieces of wood must be destroyed, three men are forever changed by four miraculous healings.

  38. Anna Fetter March 27, 2008 at 2:35 pm #

    Mine is an early nineteenth century Novel. My one line is:

    He loved only one woman and pursued her through time, trials, emotional breakdowns, even death.

  39. Carla Stewart March 27, 2008 at 3:08 pm #

    I’m late in chiming in here, but here goes:

    A fledgling photographer believes getting your kicks on Route 66 should not include murder.

  40. Chris March 27, 2008 at 3:31 pm #

    A committed pacifist plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War II.

  41. David Benedict March 27, 2008 at 3:38 pm #

    A gifted violinist loses his bow hand in the Civil War, and almost loses his soul, until “the enemy” helps him overcome his disability.

  42. Rachael M March 27, 2008 at 3:41 pm #

    “In a future world where the public vote on the fate of inmates, a woman on death row must prove her innocence before it’s her turn.”

  43. Kim March 27, 2008 at 3:41 pm #

    A teenage boy finds that the only way he can have a future is to face the terrible secret of his past.

  44. Jane Robertson March 27, 2008 at 4:35 pm #

    A homeless cat creates havoc in a young pastor’s congregation–especially when a vet reveals the cat may be worth a hundred thousand dollars.

  45. Andre March 27, 2008 at 5:58 pm #

    A wrestling promoter sells his company to a woman with secrets, only to turn up dead.

  46. Dale Emery March 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm #

    A year after running away, twelve-year-old Jeremy Crowther returns home, only to find that nobody knows who he is.

  47. Donna March 27, 2008 at 6:22 pm #

    An 18th century farmer in search of his heritage finds answers, and love, he never expected.

  48. Julie March 27, 2008 at 7:32 pm #

    “A teenage girl with the newfound ability to fly must stop a brutal genoide by putting her past behind her.”

  49. Julie March 27, 2008 at 7:48 pm #

    genocide*

    whoops 😛

  50. Zac March 27, 2008 at 8:02 pm #

    A suicidal man has to travel back in time to save the only person he could ever truly love.

  51. darrell p March 27, 2008 at 8:50 pm #

    A popular young minister’s life is rocked when God commands him to marry a whore.

  52. D.E. Hale March 27, 2008 at 9:12 pm #

    Still working on this, but here’s what I have:

    A disillusioned warrior must lay aside his anger, and work with his enemies to retrieve an ancient sword, that has the power to save the world from “The Darkness,” before the darkness transplanted into him awakens and transforms him.

  53. M.L. Eqatin March 27, 2008 at 9:34 pm #

    “While Stoney plots practical jokes and his cousin Twist uses her magic talisman to get even, Yana the llama tries to alert his clueless ‘two-legs’ to a deadly pair of pumas.”
    or my alternate, a tongue-twister using a mix of familiar stories as ‘description shorthand’:
    “In a pan of Inca pattern, pickle half a Harry Potter and a hardened Pocahontas in pureed Apocalypto.”

  54. Daan Van der Merwe March 27, 2008 at 11:05 pm #

    Wow!! 53 great comments! Long live the SNOWFLAKE METHOD! Like you’ve said in your rules for posting Randy, you have a wonderful community of fiction writers.

  55. Wolfhardt March 28, 2008 at 6:22 am #

    “A boy raised by demon worshippers seeks to find his place in life as apprentice of a demon hunting sorceress.”
    It´s set in a dark fantasy version of the Middle Ages, where all the mythical believes of that time are real.

  56. Jan Kerr March 28, 2008 at 8:11 am #

    A woman’s child is kidnapped from her bed by a neighbor and killed.

  57. Jim Hughes March 28, 2008 at 11:28 am #

    A software developer discovers the terrifying truth about corporate manipulation of the global food chain.

  58. Richard Barnett March 28, 2008 at 12:15 pm #

    One sentence summary

    A repressed young man in deep disgrace goes in search of his father’s lost donkeys, but his journey becomes a quest of self-discovery that leads him to Israel’s kingmaker.

  59. Gina March 28, 2008 at 4:31 pm #

    Am I too late to get in on this? I don’t know why the one sentence summary is the hardest thing for me, and I’m so close to turning this proposal in!

    A celebrity archaeology professor interferes in an FBI investigation when her husband is accused of stealing an Egyptian artifact. OR 🙂

    A celebrity archaeology professor interferes in the FBI investigation of a missing Egyptian artifact to prove her husband’s innocence. OR 🙂

    A celebrity archaeology professor interferes in the FBI investigation when her husband is accused of stealing an Egyptian artifact, but ends up jeopardizing the truth, her marriage, and her life.

  60. Karen D'Amato March 28, 2008 at 6:18 pm #

    In the beginning, the spirit of God hovered over California…then all hell broke loose.

    But personally, I like Chris’ entry: A committed pacifist plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War II. It echoes of a rogue physicist travels back in time…

  61. valerie March 28, 2008 at 7:25 pm #

    A childless woman struggles to circumvent her depraved goddess’ edict and protect her firstborn.

    Fantasy entitled Majai’s Fury

  62. Bonnie Calhoun March 28, 2008 at 10:07 pm #

    Montana Sinclair unknowingly helped the government create a weapon to control the weather, and now she must stop the madman who commandeered the project in a bid to destroy the United States.

  63. Bruce March 29, 2008 at 11:38 am #

    Hope this is not too late – I found this exercise really helpful, thanks…

    A dyslexic former adolescent gang member, now psychiatric nurse, investigates the suspicious suicide of a patient, becoming the target of a murderer.

  64. Scott March 29, 2008 at 2:53 pm #

    For a fantasy novel:

    After a mysterious plague decimates the population, a young soldier fights to restore order, while his cousin prospers from calamity.

    A bit long, but I’m stuck.

  65. Scott March 29, 2008 at 5:52 pm #

    Sorry for the email address typo. I was nervous.

    For a fantasy novel:

    After a mysterious plague decimates the population, a young soldier fights to restore order, while his cousin prospers from calamity.

    A bit long, but I’m stuck.

  66. Seerring March 30, 2008 at 9:28 pm #

    “Sielin the Coward is finally granted training in wizardry at the price of using his awesome and hard-won magical skills in defense of a small foreign country he has little stake in protecting.”

    This really just covers the middle. I tried writing the whole plot but it came out as three sentences and looked like a trilogy. Although long, this story really doesn’t deserve to be a trilogy.

    If the sentence sounds good, is that good enough?

  67. Martha Rogers March 31, 2008 at 8:01 am #

    Hope it’s not too late to submit. The first one is from a historical. The second is from a contemporary.
    I need help.

    An alleged murderer reclaims his life, but can he claim his beloved before someone else does?

    Evils from Claire Dennison’s past threaten to kill all hopes for her future.

  68. Tiffany Shaw March 31, 2008 at 12:53 pm #

    Probably too late, but here goes:

    An amnesiac changeling woman must save her baby, her people, and humanity from her vengeful ex-lover.

  69. D! April 1, 2008 at 6:51 am #

    Hey, hope I can still get this in. Wait, that wasn’t my sentence. Neither was that. Stop it.

    Alright, here it is:

    A young boy rediscovers the secrets of a forgotten book to save a society on the brink of disaster.

    Thanks.

  70. Grace Bridges April 3, 2008 at 10:47 am #

    An oat harvester’s world is turned upside-down when a mysterious Voice helps him resist governmental mind control.

  71. Darrell Proctor April 3, 2008 at 3:18 pm #

    Randy – after reading your comments of the last few days I have rewritten my original one sentence summary to the following:

    Everyone suspects that mega-church pastor BB Wellson is responsible for the mysterious disappearance of his wife.

    the original was : A popular young minister’s life is rocked when God commands him to marry a whore.

    Same story,same premise,but hopefully more sizzle.

  72. Clifford D. Tate, Sr. May 7, 2008 at 1:30 pm #

    A young man is active and well respected in his church,but his addiction to internet pornography begins to ruin all his relationships.

  73. P.S. May 24, 2008 at 7:39 am #

    So, I’m a month behind.

    “An apathetic deity creates the human race as a means to destroy the world, but has an emotional breakdown when he realizes that man is ignorant of his purpose.”

  74. Naomi Musch August 5, 2008 at 6:50 am #

    Deep in the pineries of Wisconsin Territory, can Colette remain faithful in a loveless marriage, now that Manason has returned? Dare she follow her impetuous heart again?

  75. Monika Kochhar June 23, 2009 at 11:46 am #

    A successful but bored businessman’s vacation leads him to his college sweetheart and the realization that he owns everything but happiness.

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