Critiquing Your One Sentence Summaries Round 3

I’m continuing to critique one-sentence summaries that my loyal blog readers posted last week. I think we’ve all learned a few things from this exercise. I certainly have — trying to explain why something works or doesn’t work forces me to translate my intuition into analysis.

Elizabeth posted this one:

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

Randy sez: My first question is this — at what point does she leave him? If that’s the ending, then your one-sentence summary has a major spoiler in it.

If her leaving him is near the beginning of the story, then my second question is this — does he care? I’m not quite sure what the attraction would be in a marriage like this, but (pardon me if I’m wrong) I would think it’s less than with a straight man and a straight woman. If he doesn’t care, then there’s no story here. If he cares, then you have a story.

I think your one-sentence summary would be stronger if you could find a way to make the answers to these two questions clear, since I’m pretty sure most editors would also want to know the answer.

Mary wrote:

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.

Randy sez: I usually recommend against using the name of a character in a one-sentence summary, because I prefer to give some descriptive nouns and adjectives that tell us who the character is. However, Mary is a multi-published author, so I’m going to give her the freedom to do whatever she wants on that score. The issue I’ll focus on, Mary, is whether you can focus that guilt thing up a bit.

How often does Emory remember Daisy’s face? What’s the occasion for these memories? Is there anything in particular that raises the memory? Is there more to the story than this guilt thing? (Guilt is a pretty interior conflict, so I’m really asking if there’s some exterior conflict to help carry the story.)

Lynn wrote:

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

Randy sez: OK, this is screaming for some specifics: What year are we talking about? What country? In what way is he (or she–we need to know the gender) “striving”? What sort of persecution? What does it mean to face the loss of love and life?

One common thread I’ve seen in a LOT of the one-sentence summaries that have been posted here is abstraction. I suspect the purpose of this is to broaden the reader appeal by raising the “big issues” but the real effect is that it narrows appeal, since nobody has any idea what the story is about.

Parker wrote:

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

Randy sez: This certainly would generate interest for a certain niche of reader, but I’ll repeat here how important it is to get specific. Where and when does Amanda live (at least in her current incarnation)? Let’s face it–if she’s an MIT professor of physics, then this is a very different story than if she’s a Hollywood palm reader. And where and when did she live before?

With that, I’ll leave off for today. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up with some more critiques. Let me know if you have some specific issues with one-sentence summaries that you’d like me to explain.

9 Comments

  1. Daan Van der Merwe April 2, 2008 at 12:30 am #

    Thank you very much for all the extremely useful information Randy.

    If, maybe in a few days you decide to move on to step 2 of the Snowflake Method, I’m ready. :-)

  2. Iain April 2, 2008 at 2:20 am #

    Some more useful pointers Randy, thanks. Particularly the point about how being specific can actually widen the appeal by focusing on a certain type of reader.

  3. Sam April 2, 2008 at 4:42 am #

    I like the point of being more specific to generate interest, but I can’t imagine how to add all the details you’re asking for and keep it around 15 words. I’m looking forward to continuing my learning.
    Thanks, Randy.

  4. Parker Haynes April 2, 2008 at 5:05 am #

    Randy,

    I find myself in the same boat as Sam. How many specific detail can I weave with only fifteen words or so? But I’ll try again and again and again. Thanks for the time, effort, and expertise. You are APPRECIATED!

    Parker

  5. David Benedict April 2, 2008 at 6:00 am #

    Condensing the meat of your story into a few specific words is the challenge, isn’t it? Randy didn’t tell us it wouldn’t be hard and frustrating. I’m sure my own one-sentence summary (still to be critiqued) has plenty of flaws. One I know already is to say my protagonist nearly “loses his soul.” What does that mean in everyday human experience? I’m thinking.

    Thanks for all the comments, Randy. Very helpful. Very challenging.

  6. Camille April 2, 2008 at 8:49 am #

    Ditto Sam. I was going to ask the same question, but am having trouble doing it in less than 15 words, while still conveying the intensely personal poignancy of my dilemma. :)

    A deranged (?) physicist travels back in time to kill the Apostle Paul – and you knew not to focus on the protagonist. Maybe it’s due to the ‘concept’ level factor? Your story is high concept, being a suspense/thriller, so it makes sense to follow the central action thread instead of the protag.

    My story is intensely personal & low concept; the internal impact of events on the characters is central to the story, not the events themselves.

    My tagline is this: What if the love that mends a heart rips it apart again?

    My lame one line-revised: A bitter widower’s second chance at love means marrying a dying woman.

    I know you want details on how or why she’s dying, but her illness doesn’t present during the time of the story, it’s not a central or actual event; it’s the devastating news that she has inherited a fatal disease, the inevitability of her early death that impacts the characters spiritually and emotionally, and is key to the story.

    Do I still need the details of something that is in the background? I want to focus on the poignancy of their struggles and decisions. How do I hit on my story’s low concept, high internal impact? I think you’ve summarized Pride & Prejudice in one sentence, I don’t remember. (Don’t you tell me this intensely personal story is about a mom obsessed with marrying off all her daughters.)

    Thanks, Randy, for working through each of our sentences; we all learn from it!

  7. Sheila Deeth April 2, 2008 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks Randy. I’m trying to figure out which specifics to focus on. Good exercise for rewriting that one-sentence summary, and helpful with editing too – which “specific” bits to leave in, expand, contract, etc.

  8. Debbie Allen April 3, 2008 at 2:19 pm #

    Here’s a quote from Noah Lukeman’s free Amazon download “How to Write a Great Query Letter”:

    “Condensing your plot to a single sentence is a good exercise. If you can get your plot down to one sentence, imagine what you can do with three. Your three-sentence paragraph will suddenly seem to have extra room. By doing it this way-shrinking more than necessary, then expanding-you get to strip your plot down to its bare bones, then build it back up, and get to see what is truly essential.”

    My question is: What if you have twin protagonists and both get equal weight in the story?

    Here are sample one-sentence summaries for my two protagonists in a YA novel:

    A young prince chooses a bride by kissing every maid in the kingdom, but the one he chooses disappears.

    An orphan girl participating in a kissing contest has no idea that she alone holds critical information for the survival of the kingdom.

  9. Mary Hake April 3, 2008 at 8:50 pm #

    Debbie,
    I think the second sentence draws more interest and would suffice. Readers know there has to be someone doing the kissing, and it leaves room for curiosity.

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