The One-Sentence Summary for Puzzlers

For the last week and a half, we’ve been talking about how important it is to write a good one-sentence summary of your novel. Yesterday, Donna asked a very pertinent question:

Question…how do you work an interesting one out if you’re a puzzle writer or use some other method and haven’t gotten all the details figured out on your story? You know your beginning and how it will all end up but not totally how you’re going to get there. I know that using the Snowflake method it’s the first step but is it ok if you get a chunk, or chunks, of the story written before you attempt the one sentence summary?

Randy sez: You can do whatever you want, whenever you want to. For those who use Cindy Martinusen Coloma’s “Puzzle Method” (which we discussed here recently), you may not know your story very well when you start writing. That’s OK! If that’s where you are, then that’s where you are.

Some novelists are going to need to write the whole story before they figure out their one-sentence summary. That’s actually a good time to write the one-sentence summary (if you are a Seat Of The Pants writer) and it’s a good time to rewrite your one-sentence summary (if you are a Snowflaker).

Your purpose is NOT to follow some particular paint-by-numbers scheme to get a one-sentence summary. Your purpose is to get the best one-sentence summary you possibly can, as early as you can, using whatever method works best for you. And the reason for doing so is to use it as a marketing tool as effectively as possible.

Writing the one-sentence summary is an art, not a science. The more you do it, the better you get at it. When I created Fiction 201, I wrote some example one-sentence summaries for about 20 different best-selling novels, and each one took me only a few minutes. After a while, you just know how to do it (for somebody else’s story). It always seems to be harder to do it for yourself. :(

OK, I’ve got time to critique a couple more one-sentence summaries that my loyal blog readers have posted here in the last week or so:

Katie wrote:

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

Randy sez: This is pretty strong. Can we strengthen this? Our warrior is not just any old run-of-the-mill warrior. She’s a she, which we learn only by the pronoun “her” which is buried in the middle of the sentence. So let’s muscle up our description of this warrior to something like “A female warrior” or “A girl warrior” (if she’s young enough). You might also think “A warrior princess” would work but, alas, Xena has been done and she’s a cult icon and you don’t want to be derivative, so you really can’t use this one.

By the way, don’t be too worried about whether you’re going to offend folks who will bristle and say “Why make a big deal about a woman warrior? Why do you act like it’s surprising for a woman to be a warrior? Are you knuckling under to people’s sexist stereotypes?”

The correct answer to this sort of bristle-talk is: “Oh, go soak your head!” Let’s get real. A female warrior is a lot more rare in our culture than a male warrior. In some other culture, that’s not the case, and there you’d write a different one-sentence summary. But you’re writing for readers in our culture, so highlight what’s exceptional. Go with “A female warrior” and don’t worry about the bristle-heads.

The second issue I would suggest is to backload the biggest emotive hit by sticking it at the end of the sentence. The fact that she’s collaborating with Daddy’s murderer is a HUGE emotive hit. Use that as a kicker.

Here’s my suggestion: “A female warrior tries to prevent a coup by allying with her father’s murderer.”

14 words, 2 characters, 1 central plot idea, and 1 kicker. Not bad! I’m sure it could be honed a little more, but this is what I came up with after fully 10 seconds of thought.

Mark wrote:

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.

Randy sez: Thanks, Mark, for those kudos. I appreciate that. (Mark was in my mentoring track at the recent Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, and we had a great time: 10 writers for 8 hours of intensive critiquing and then I had half an hour of one-on-one time with each of them.)

I like Mark’s one-sentence summary. The lead character is “A dead man”. Sounds not very promising, because dead men generally make dull protagonists, but Mark immediately gives this character something to strive for: “can’t escape his body”. That’s our hero’s goal, and it’s a fine, fine goal (if you’re a zombie). What’s keeping him from doing so? “until he saves the two children he orphaned.” Excellent! Now we’ve got a couple of brats to deal with, but we care about them because everybody cares about orphans. It’s part of our DNA to care about orphans. If you don’t care about humans, you are not human. Our zombie cares about them even more, because he can’t take leave of his wretched dead body until he places them in a good home. There are all sorts of humor possibilities in a book like this.

14 words, 3 characters, 1 plot, and I don’t see how to improve it, unless it would be to strengthen that verb “saves”. But since I don’t see any obvious alternatives, I’m going to say that this one-sentence summary is “good enough for now.”

Finish that book, Mark, and get yourself an agent.

10 Comments

  1. Pam Halter April 7, 2008 at 5:34 am #

    Wow, Mark, what an intriguing story! I agree with Randy … get that book finished and out there. I can’t wait to read it.

  2. Lynda April 7, 2008 at 6:49 am #

    Can’t wait for your book either , Mark.

    Here’s my re,re,re…revision: After his family’s massacre for a bungled coup, a linguistics professor stalks their assassin.

  3. Rachel April 7, 2008 at 11:01 am #

    Wow, how fun, Randy! I always have trouble with this part, but you have some great points, as usual. I’m still working on the one we were trying to fix at Mount Hermon in 2006. :P

    Here’s the new ms I’m working on, though. Let’s see if I’m getting any better at this:

    “Sixteen-year-old Laney discovers the family secret her dad’s been trying so hard to hide: she’s about to grow wings.”

  4. Donna April 8, 2008 at 4:45 am #

    Thanks for answering, Randy, and again reminding me that any way we write is good, as long as we write.

  5. Tim April 8, 2008 at 4:05 pm #

    I read a book called the successful story, written by the author of Rambo, and other books. The book is really good and I suggest you read it for the sole realistic look at breaking into the business. Anyway, he was dead against this idea of doing what is done for movies for books, because of the book should be so big and confusing to be able to breakdown to one sentence. Thought I would through this out since I read it.

  6. Bonnie Grove April 8, 2008 at 6:11 pm #

    Long time reader, first time poster (yeah, I like the Simpsons).

    I’m preparing for a writer’s conference in June, I’m on faculty, but I’m also going ms in hand.

    This exercise is a great one, and I’ll be using this formual for pitching my two novels.

    I’ve only worked out a 14 word sentence for one of them: A young widow confronts her past to silence the voice of her dead husband.

    Thanks for such a great blog and all the great, practical help you offer.

    Peace.

  7. Mark Goodyear April 9, 2008 at 6:30 am #

    Thanks, Randy. I’m late to the blogosphere this week, but you made me smile. You are such an encouragement to people.

    As for finishing, I continue to plug along each morning. Now that I understand plot better, I am able to see mistakes I made early on that I have to fix. Trying to finish the draft before I start revisions. One thing at a time.

    Katie–your one sentence summary is great too! Who doesn’t love women warriors?

  8. Alexandra June 26, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Hey, I need your help desperately. I need your help to make this sentence a lot better please: Four best friends perform together in their school’s talent show and they win an unexpected prize.

  9. Megan July 12, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    Hi! I’m using the Snowflake method and it’s working, at least until I get to the characters. Then I start flaking out…how exhausting to carry these people! So I’m starting out with a story about a boy who is the central character which all the others are just secondary. I’d like to find out what you think about this summary sentence.

    Boy finds out he can hear other’s thoughts and discovers the meaning of his existence.

    Thanks a bunch, you are so awesome!

  10. Nawaf April 21, 2011 at 6:25 am #

    Hi! I really like your snowflake method, Randy. It is so simple, yet so helpful. I would like your insight regarding this one-sentence summary:
    A young detective tracks down a killer that provides him hints of an explosive conclusion.
    Thanks a lot!

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