Understanding the high-level structure of a novel is hard work. It’s also rewarding work, because if you can discipline yourself to do it, you’ll understand what’s most important in your story and you’ll be able to help the marketing people at your publisher when you get your book published.
Camille posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m working on a proposal for a completed novel using the Snowflake Pro. Cool thing, by the way.
Stepping up from a one sentence summary to one paragraph using 5 specific sentences is crazy hard, at least for me. How do you make each of these into fully inclusive, coherent, non run-on sentences? Can you give a 5 sentence paragraph example from a hi-profile book or flick?
Randy sez: Thanks for the shout-out on Snowflake Pro, Camille.
Let’s review first what our goals are with these summaries. When you write a one-sentence summary, you are creating a marketing hook that anyone can use to tell their friends about your book. So the one-sentence summary is a selling tool.
Now when you go to expand this to a one-paragraph summary (in five sentences), you have an entirely different goal. You are doing a reality check to verify that you are meeting your reader’s expectations for what a story should be.
A story is not just a disconnected set of episodes. A story guides a reader through a series of connected events that provide a Powerful Emotional Experience. The big emotional payoff comes at the end, when the lead character either gets what she wants (a happy ending), doesn’t get what she wants (a sad ending), or gets some of what she wants but pays a price (a bittersweet ending). The payoff is bigger if most of the story makes it clear that the lead character has very little chance of getting what she wants.
Now it’s impossible to get what you want unless you actually know what it is you want. That needs to be defined early in the story. But before the reader will understand what the character wants, the reader needs to know a bit about the character.
That explains a whole lot about why I use a five-sentence structure, which looks like this:
- Write a sentence to tell who your lead character is and their initial situation in the story.
- Write a sentence that summarizes the first quarter of the story, ending in a disaster which forces the lead character to make a decision on how she wants the story to end. This defines the Story Question: “Will she get it or won’t she?”
- Write a sentence that summarizes the second quarter of the book, ending in a disaster which makes it look like the lead character won’t get what she wants.
- Write a sentence that summarizes the third quarter of the book, ending in an even worse disaster which makes it appear that all is lost.
- Write a final sentence that summarizes the ending and tells whether the lead character gets what she wants or not.
When you do this, you have to strip out all unnecessary details. Leave out all subplots and minor characters. (If you insist on putting those in, then you get those long run-on sentences in which the lead character’s issues with her remote and emotionally detached father get in the way of explaining why she and the hero can’t get together, because you’re constantly explaining stuff that you think is important which is sort of important but not as important as the really important stuff.)
Camille asked for some examples, so here are a few which I lifted straight out of the examples in Snowflake Pro:
For Gone With the Wind, which is a massively complicated book so it needs to be radically cut down:
Spoiled Scarlett O’Hara thinks her life is ruined when Ashley Wilkes marries Melanie instead of her. Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother and is quickly widowed, leaving Scarlett to protect Melanie during the burning of Atlanta. They barely escape to desolated Tara, where Scarlett’s family is sick, dead, starving or insane–and about to lose their home. To save them, Scarlett marries Frank Kennedy and takes over his business enterprises, which eventually leads to Frank’s death. Scarlett marries Rhett, but her obsession with Ashley eventually drives him away.
For Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
On his eleventh birthday, orphaned Harry Potter is invited to leave his miserable life with his aunt and uncle to attend a school for witches and wizards. Harry learns that an evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, tried to kill him as a baby and lost all his own powers instead. When Harry nearly dies in a jinxed game of Quidditch, he suspects that sinister Professor Snape is responsible. When Harry has to do a detention in the forbidden forest, he witnesses a shadowy figure drinking unicorn blood, a magical life preserver. Harry sets out to stop Snape from returning Voldemort to power, only to face Voldemort himself.
For the movie Pirates of the Caribbean:
Elizabeth, the governor’s spunky daughter, tries to save Port Royal from evil Captain Barbossa, but ends up becoming a prisoner of his ghostly crew. Her admirer Will Turner sets out to rescue her with the help of Captain Jack Sparrow, Barbossa’s greatest enemy. Pirate-hating Commodore Norrington rescues Elizabeth and Jack, but refuses to save Will–until Elizabeth rashly promises to marry him. They rescue Will and defeat Barbossa’s pirates, but Norrington sentences Jack Sparrow to be hanged . . .
For the book Pride & Prejudice:
When Lizzie Bennet and her sisters meet some wealthy young men at a ball, Lizzie takes a keen dislike to one of them, Mr. Darcy. Lizzie’s sister Jane falls in love with Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley, and Lizzie takes an interest in Mr. Wickham — whom she then learns has been financially ruined by Darcy. When Lizzie visits her married friend in Hunsford some months later, Mr. Darcy seeks her out and proposes marriage to her, but she rejects him flat out. Lizzie soon finds out that Darcy is a better man than she had thought, and she is beginning to regret her rejection when her sister Lydia runs away to live in sin with Mr. Wickham. When Lizzie learns that Mr. Darcy rescued her sister’s reputation and when he learns that she no longer hates him, the two realize that they were made for each other.
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