Optimizing Your One-Sentence Storyline

Yesterday, we analyzed a one-sentence storyline posted by Seth. Today, we’ll be looking at four different variants of a storyline posted by a different reader, Daniel, and we’ll try to optimize his work.

Daniel posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a question about One-Sentence Summaries / Storylines regarding their scale and scope. Here are 4 that I developed for my WIP:

(A) A teenage detective tracks down his father’s killer. (9 words)
(B) A teenage detective with a sleeping disorder tracks down his father’s killer. (13 words)
(C) A teenage detective with a sleeping disorder turns his curse into a strength to track down his father’s killer. (20 words)
(D) A teenage detective with a sleeping disorder turns his curse into a strength to track down his father’s killer and discovers he is his family’s biggest secret. (28 words)

As you can see, they build from simplest to most complex. In working on developing the best storyline I could, I initially came up with the (C) and (D) versions and simply worked backward to get the (A) and (B) versions.

So, my question: Which is best? (A) is simplest and meets all the right criteria but is also so bland as to be a non-starter. Or does “less is more” still apply? Is there a minimum word count? I can add some intriguing details to make it unique with both (B) and (C) and still be under the 25 word mark. Then there’s my whopper (D) which includes a hint at the outcome but is over the word limit.

I’ve tried to meet all the criteria for these things that you’ve mentioned, all from Rachelle Gardner’s blog, and more. Personally, I lean toward (C) to pack in the most punch while still meeting the word limit. But what do you and your readers think?

Randy sez: Agent Rachelle Gardner recently ran a contest on her Rants and Ramblings blog for one-sentence storylines and got quite a large number of entries. If you don’t follow Rachelle, you really should. She’s consistently one of the top bloggers in the Books category on Technorati, and she quite often has the #1 position on that list. I read Rachelle’s blog every day.

The problem with (D) is that it gives away too much of the ending. The one-sentence storyline should give away nothing that happens beyond the first-quarter of the book. The reason is simple: Your one-sentence storyline is a selling tool. It raises a “Story Question” which your novel is meant to answer. If you tell anything about the answer, then you have hobbled your Story Question. The Story Question is this: “Will this teenage detective find his father’s killer?”

In fact, if you look at all four options, (A) through (D), they all answer the Story Question, because they all say explicitly that he tracks down his father’s killer. That’s the main problem I’m seeing here.

An immediate way to improve (A) would therefore be to focus on the teen’s desire to track down the killer, not on his success in doing so: “A teenage detective vows to track down his father’s killer.”

Now the Story Question is clear: Will he or won’t he?

However, as Daniel noted, this is fairly bland. I’ll use a variant of the same question I asked yesterday, on both halves of the sentence:

  • How is this teenage detective different from all other teenage detectives?
  • How is this killer different from all other killers?

The answers to these questions add uniqueness to your hero or your villain and makes the story far more intriguing.

For example, in Mark Haddon’s brilliant novel, THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, there is a teenage detective who has Asperger’s syndrome. So a one-sentence summary of this book might be, “An autistic teenage detective vows to find the murderer of his neighbor’s dog.”

Notice that this focuses on the uniqueness of the hero and it has a twist at the end: the victim of the murder is a dog. Most people wouldn’t care much about a dog nor label it a murder, but this detective is different — he is autistic, and it makes sense that he’ll see the death of a dog differently than most people. He, in fact, sees the entire world differently and that’s what makes this novel special.

You might focus instead on the killer. What’s special about him? What’s unique? We might try something like this:

“A teenage detective vows to track down the last surviving member of the Nazi High Command — the man who murdered his father.”

The last surviving member of the Nazi High Command is by definition unique. That heightens the appeal for the novel because the man is a villain on a global scale. But by making him the murderer of our hero’s father, that adds a personal hook that makes it plausible that this hero will not quit, ever.

Of course, this Nazi bad guy, if he exists, would be close to 100 years old. A book like this would have worked better in the 1970s or 1980s, so it would be more plausible to bring this villain forward a few years.

In (B), (C), and (D), Daniel brings in the teen’s sleeping disorder, but in my view, this needs more oomph. (“Oomph” is a technical term which means . . . um, “oomph.”)

The problem is that in (B) there’s no connection between a sleeping disorder and the main quest. It isn’t clear how it could help or hurt the teen’s pursuit of justice.

In (C) and (D), we’re told that the sleeping disorder somehow helps pursue the killer, but since we have no clear indication of how this could possibly happen, it makes the storylines less plausible without making them more interesting. To make these work, we need some sort of explanation.

Daniel has several options:

  1. Make the hero unique or more clearly specified.
  2. Make the villain unique or more clearly specified.
  3. Explain how a sleep disorder can be an advantage.
  4. Do something else that brings the story to life.

We’ve already covered Doors #1, #2, and #3. But what about that mysterious Door #4? That’s fertile ground, but we don’t have enough information about Daniel’s story to know what’s happening that could spice up the storyline. Daniel hints that he has some things that could do it, and I think those might be just the ticket.

To answer the final unanswered questions Daniel asked: Yes, less is more in a storyline. No, there is no minimum word count.

For example, I can give you an Xtremely short storyline for my friend Tosca Lee’s next book. Here it is, in just one word: “Judas.”

Tosca’s book is titled ISCARIOT, and it’s the story of Judas Iscariot. If you’re a fan of Tosca’s writing, as I am, that’s really all you need to know. (Because I have a lot of expertise in the time and place that Tosca’s writing about, she and I have talked about her story a lot. Tosca is a research fiend like I am, so I’ve pointed her to my favorite research sources and have given her my best understanding of the political state of first-century Judea and Galilee.)

The reason a one-word storyline works for Tosca’s book is that she’s a character-oriented writer and her lead character is uniquely specified by his first name.

Bottom line: We don’t have enough information about Daniel’s story to perfect his storyline. But he does. I hope he’ll find inspiration to make it better and that he’ll post his improved version here as a comment.

Any thoughts from my Loyal Blog Readers? I’m sure you all know by now that I’m not always right in these judgment calls. But I’ve given my opinion. Anyone else got one? Post it here as a comment.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

14 Comments

  1. Luke July 23, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

    I agree on the strength deal (I’m not sure about how it would help), but I could see how it could hinder him if the condition were something like narcolepsy. Or maybe he has a disorder that makes him sleep 23 hours a day. So I would say be specific about the disorder.

    I do like the idea of vowing to track down father’s killer suggestion, which leaves it in doubt.

    Assuming you are intent on writing the sleep disorder angle, I would propose the following:

    “A narcoleptic teen vows to track down his father’s killer.”

    Now you know something specific about the teen, his goal and the problems and danger his sudden sleeping fits might cause.

  2. Tammy July 23, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    “A narcoleptic teen detective tracks his Fathers killer and accidentally discovers a family secret.”

    I agree that naming the disorder makes it more interesting! Something in me really wants the words “between naps”. ๐Ÿ™‚

    “Between sudden naps, a narcoleptic teen tracks his Fathers killer only to accidentally uncover a family secret.”

    Thats my 2 cents.

  3. Tammy July 23, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    …”father’s”

  4. Debbie Thorkildsen July 24, 2010 at 6:15 am #

    When I read sleep disorder, I immediately thought of insomnia. This would help with finding the killer by giving the teen more hours in his day to search. Funny how we all think differently, but does show why identifying the sleep disorder is important.

  5. Bruce H. Johnson July 24, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Another place to see one-sentence summaries is the cable TV listings. Probably 80% of the shows/episodes have them while every movie I’ve seen has one.

    Try looking at blurbs for movies you’ve seen. Then you can analyze their efficiency like we do here, especially since you know what the movie does.

  6. Lois Hudson July 24, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Good suggestion, Bruce. Flip side of that is to create your own one sentence summary, but I think Randy’s covered that in the past.

    I saw the sleep disorder thing as giving the teen more nighttime hours to be out there tracking, which adds a bit of dark time tension and opportunitiy for suspense.

  7. Nana Kwarteng July 25, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    I’m in the middle of my novel and am glad Randy touched on making the lead character unique. I did that with my lead in the one-sentence storyline(his major characteristic is that he’s ambitious) and found it much more appealing. Giving the protagonist a mjor, defining characteristic helped me to focus on how it impacts the story.

  8. Daniel Smith July 26, 2010 at 6:48 am #

    Randy, thanks for taking this apart and giving me your all. I’ve read through your explanation once but I’ll have to read it again with fresh eyes to get out all the benefits. I’m definitely adjusting to a “vows to” pattern. The rest is going to take some work.

    Thanks for the comments all.

    So, to recap Randy’s suggestions and explain my changes:

    1. Make the hero unique or more clearly specified.
    2. Make the villain unique or more clearly specified.
    3. Explain how a sleep disorder can be an advantage.
    4. Do something else that brings the story to life.

    (3) Lois and Debbie are on the right track. My teen needs less sleep at night but it’s not insomnia. He doesn’t need the usual 8 hours like the rest of us. But Luke and Tammy are right too. During sleep he can’t be awakened but it’s not narcolepsy. His body goes to sleep for about an hour each night; that’s all it needs. It’s an advantage and a vulnerability all in one.

    I don’t know that there’s a common name for it beyond the medical jargon which would be a turn off to my target audience. I have tried to find one. So “sleeping disorder” is not specific enough but there’s not another name for it. I could make up one. How about “Cole-Wilson’s”? It has a catchy name but then I would still have to explain it in my storyline. (Or would I…)

    I just can’t seem to add in this sleeping disorder in an advantageous way. It’s hard to define and I have a strict word count limit. Plus, I don’t think my target audience would be too interested excluding the “get more hours in your day” angle. Bottom line: I’m dropping it.

    (1) I don’t see how mentioning the sleeping disorder is an advantage with my target audience in mind so I’ll drop it.

    In fact, I’m dropping “detective” before teenager to make my hero seem more “normal” to my target audience (which he is). Teenagers don’t naturally think of themselves as detectives so this is actually more appealing. Less is more.

    (2) I more clearly specified the villain as a mastermind.

    (4) The reduction of my teenager and the elevating of my mastermind has the added effect of a nice power imbalance – in favor of the villain.

    So here’s my updated storyline:

    “A teenager vows to track down the mastermind who killed his detective father.” (13)

    Oh, his father is/was a detective too. ๐Ÿ˜‰ This is a revenge killing but the son doesn’t understand this at first. As Randy says, don’t give away your ending (but I’ll share the explanation with all of you here).

    And just for fun, an alternate:

    “A teenager with Cole-Wilson’s syndrome vows to track down the mastermind who killed his detective father.” (16)

    Hey, that’s not too bad. It immediately raises the question in the reader’s mind: “What is Cole-Wilson’s syndrome?” I like it.

    Any additional comments?

  9. Adam Leigh July 26, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    Is this a legitimate condition you’ve seen documented? It seems a little … science-fiction. Also, I don’t think using a fake name for a condition will benefit you at all because someone will try to look it up and they’ll be turned off and start replacing ‘Cole-Wilson’ with ‘Blah blah’. Which is never good.

    I think you can get away with simply calling it insomnia which doesn’t mean a person never sleeps, it means they sleep much less than they need. The “he doesn’t NEED more than an hour” is why I think it’s science fiction. Sleep is when the body recovers, fixes itself, and re-orients your memories for long-term storage. Without appropriate amounts of sleep you have persistent fatigue and temporary mental disorder that could eventually lead to permanent psychosis.

    Insomnia is a good hook, though! You shouldn’t drop it, because it implies a whole host of challenges the character needs to overcome. Not to mention, many people have suffered from insomnia, or have (however inaccurately) associated periods of low sleep as being insomnia. It creates a commonality that readers can use to approach your character in a way that “a son of a detective” does not.

    The key is not to treat it as an advantage, but to present it as another villain, trying to undermine the kid. Considering that being an investigator is a brain-intensive activity, and that insomnia degrades your ability to think, you will have created a really interesting challenge for your protagonist to overcome.

  10. Tammy July 26, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    Perhaps “bizarre sleep condition” or โ€œstrange sleep stateโ€ is a better way of handling it.

    I donโ€™t think that describing the condition it would take away from it. In fact I think it would add more! Then you can delve into the wild wonders that a brain must go through in REM if it only requires 1 hours of sleep a night.

    A dream world that you can’t wake the sleeper from. Sounds very interesting to me!

    Good Luck!!

    Good Luck!!

  11. Melissa July 27, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    Not to be a nitpick, but the title of Mark Haddon’s book is actually THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (for any readers out there who thought it sounded good and were looking for it as I was). ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Melissa July 27, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    And apparently I interpreted Daniel’s story summary sentences vastly different than everyone else here has. Instead of narcolepsy or insomnia, I was thinking maybe he was a werewolf. Like, he wasn’t aware of himself in his wolf form and to his human self it seemed like he’d just been sleeping during those periods of time. I the fact that I haven’t had my coffee yet made my brain play some funny word associations with the words “track” and “curse”… So I guess proof in point that a few more details are needed! ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Daniel Smith July 27, 2010 at 8:15 am #

    Thanks for the additional comments. I appreciate the support and interest. It tells me that my idea is on the right track for a good book.

    Adam, good point about making up a name for the disease. Maybe I shouldn’t go there. On the flip side, my book will be slightly alternate history so maybe it could slide. My only other choice is to set it a few years into the future which I’m strongly considering. Then again, Peter Pan introduced the name “Wendy” that became part of the public consciousness so I’m probably OK. Decisions, decisions.

    The condition is not made up though. I knew a young man that had it. It’s just so rare there isn’t a specific name for it. I learned of his condition at about the time I needed a hook for my hero and it intrigued me so I thought it might intrigue others. I was right. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I suppose it would be categorized under the “insomnia” label but it’s still not the same. I’m thinking of adding “unique insomnia” to my storyline since this seems to be interesting all of you. I like “bizarre sleep condition” too but “bizarre” has a negative connotation I’d rather avoid. Same with “disorder” too now that I think about it. Perhaps, “unusual” or “rare” but they don’t have the emotive punch of “bizarre”. Hmm… “Strange” works. I get the assonance of the letter s too: “strange sleeping condition”.

    And now that I re-read Tammy’s comment, she has already listed “strange sleep state” which is a further improvement. BTW, I’ve already got something planned for that dream world. Great minds think alike!

    Melissa, I plan for him to have that very problem! Not the werewolf, but when he does fall asleep, he can’t be awakened. Anything can happen to him (and does) or could be happening as he is not consciously aware. As author I do plan to play tricks with his mind about what happens in his off hour.

    So, modifications to the storyline. Here goes:

    “A teenager with a unique insomnia vows to track down the mastermind who killed his detective father.” (17)

    “A teenager with a strange sleeping condition vows to track down the mastermind who killed his detective father.” (18)

    “A teenager with a strange sleep state vows to track down the mastermind who killed his detective father.” (18)

    I think I like “strange sleeping condition” best. Now my storyline includes all the important points of the book. Thanks all!

  14. Melissa July 29, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    These do seem stronger. I prefer the first of the three, but the second isn’t bad either. ๐Ÿ™‚ Good luck!

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