Today I’ll critique another one-sentence summary. I’ll do Alie because she’s first on the list and because she took two shots at it:
My original one was: Running from his past brought him straight back to his future.
I just came up with an alternative: Ten years; two murders; one suspect racing to clear his name.
Randy sez: Both of these are problematic. Let’s look at the first one. We have a single character mentioned, but all we know about him is that he’s a man. That’s too vague. A key part of any one-sentence summary is the two or three word description of the main character that gets you interested in him. This is an art form. Remember how Chris grabbed our attention? His character was “A retired marine.”
By the way, I like the idea here. It just needs to be better in focus. The other main issue is that we need to know more about what “Running from his past” actually means. What did he do? Rob a bank? Kick the dog? Inquiring minds need to know!
A one-sentence summary needs to be quite specific, but not too specific. So tell us who he is, what he did, and what trouble he’s in now. All in 15 words. Not easy.
The second version is quite a bit better. It tells us that murder is involved, which is always good in a novel, even if it’s not so nice in real life. And we have a much clearer goal–one suspect racing to clear his name.
But it needs to be even more sharply in focus. What sort of person is this suspect? A Buddhist monk? A diesel mechanic? A one-armed trapeze artist?
And what exactly is he accused of? Murder, apparently, but murder of whom? His best friend? His worst enemy? His accountant?
Here is the one-sentence summary for my first published novel, TRANSGRESSION: “A physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” That sentence helped me sell a lot of copies at book-signings and in general conversation. You only have to hear that one sentence to know if you want to read the book or you don’t. This is another example of a sentence where the kicker comes at the end. Traveling back in time is cool. Killing is always an attention getter. Bit the apostle Paul is what makes this into a “high concept” story, because if you kill Paul, then you might in principle really screw up history.
So that one sentence of 11 words had almost everything: weird science, violence, and religion. The only thing missing is romance, and as it turned out, the book had a bit of that too.
Thanks for the crit, Randy. I’m beginning to see how this one sentence thing works. How about this?
An award-winning advertiser suspected in two murders spanning a decade races to clear his name.
I don’t feel the tension rising in this one like in your other examples, and it doesn’t cover all the essential items. For instance, the first murdered girl died the night she jilted him for another man.
I’ll keep working on it.
Carrie Neuman says
An award-winning advertiser never cleared in his ex’s murder is accused of killing again.
It still doesn’t have the snap it needs, but it’s the important bits in 15 words. Hope it helps you punch it up.
I’ve got a whole fle of rewrites on my sentance, and I’m still not happy with it yet. 8)
Jannie Ernst says
Randy, thank you so much for this site. It’s like going to college – only, I don’t think any college could have taught me as much as you and my fellow writers are doing at the moment. After a few days of the one-sentence discussions, my own sentence (which looked fine a few days ago) looks quite feeble now. I’ll keep on trying.
Carrie Stuart Parks says
I am soooo enjoying this. Is it to late to join in with an offering of a sentence?
A forensic artist stumbles upon the killing grounds of a vengeful serial killer.
Eve Nielsen says
Since Carrie added hers, I’ll add mine as well-for all it’s worth 🙂
*A rejected girl discovers her gift of flight and heralds a revolution.
Pam Halter says
This is harder than writing the whole novel! But I’m still working on mine. Thanks, Randy, for getting us going. Our one sentence description is SO important.
Joleena Thomas says
What I think is important about working within these tight parameters, is that it makes us take a hard look at what the essence of the story is. What’s it _really_ about?
Sure, a story can be complex and have sub-plots. It is driven by both external and internal forces and many kinds of change.
The question I think we’re asking ourselves here though is strictly defined: what kind of cloak do we want to wrap it in? What is the package to look like?
Sometimes, and I think Randy mentioned this once. If we’re having a real hard time nailing our sentence, the problem might be that we don’t really know our story as well as we thought. And of course, if it isn’t written yet, we probably don’t.
On the other hand, if it’s already been written, maybe we’re looking at it from this parental perspective where we want to _care_ for it before it goes into the world. We have these lofty ideas about it and want to pack it all in, but that defeats the purpose and inhibits our ability to write with the sparseness of who is doing what and why in ten or fifteen words.
I think that our own feelings towards our summation is probably a good gage for the story itself, or at least our understanding of it. It’s possible that we’re just lousy at one liners, but if we feel that after all of our efforts, something is missing, then we must ask ourselves what and why.
Only we know, when we get the feeling that a story is complete. That it’s _done_ and totally cooked.
It’s probable that if a story is evolving, the one liner will too.
A note on Carrie Stuart Parks’, and Eve Nielsen’s:
I think you’ve both got it down perfectly. Excellent, I think.
Thanks, Carrie. I like your version. I’ll see what else I can come up with.
The American Library Association has a sight for what it calls ‘notable books’. Many of them have one sentence summaries in the spirit of what Randy is trying to teach us. Here’s the link:
Eve Nielsen says
Thanks Joleen! It only took a week, lol.