Yesterday, I challenged all of my blog readers to come up with a one-sentence summary for your novel. All I can say is, “Wow!” As of right now, 53 of you have posted a comment with a one-sentence summary. Several of these are stellar. Many of them are very good. A few need work, but all in all, I’m very impressed.
What I’d like to do is work through the entire list and critique each one. Please understand that there is no objective way to judge these things. So I’m going to critique them the only way I know how–using my own inner compass of what sings and what croaks. My compass is not infallible. But it’s mine, and it’s all I’ve got to go on.
By the way, let me interject something here. People often email me asking how they can “pay me back” for the effort I put into this blog. Well, if you’re going to twist my arm and insist on doing something nice for me, here’s one thing that I’d never say no to: Put a link to this web site on your own web site or blog. If you have a blogroll, it takes only a minute to add this blog. Incoming links would tickle my tummy. Links are the gift that keeps on giving.
Getting back to the tangent, let’s go straight down the list and see what we see.
A university student interns at a pharmaceutical company that is performing dangerous experiments on people.
Randy sez: I like that. It’s a fairly high-concept story. Here are a couple of ideas to make it stronger:
1) Can you tell more about this university student? Does he or she have some significant personal problem that IN ITSELF will make things more difficult? (For example, in John Olson’s book ADRENALINE, a university student with muscular dystrophy was racing the clock to develop a drug that would save his sister, who had the same affliction.)
2) Tell us more about those pesky “dangerous experiments”. Can you bring those to life and make them more vivid in a few words? In one of Ken Follett’s novels (I think it was TRIPLE), there was a Holocaust survivor who had spent all of World War II having the Nazi doctors come in and break his leg in the same place. They wanted to see how a bone healed if you kept breaking it again every day. Now THAT’S vivid!
A successful lawyer vows to revenge the rape and murder of his wife and daughter.
Randy sez: Excellent! Another very strong high-concept novel. And Daan, you’re a lawyer, aren’t you? You should highlight that in your proposal.
Can we make this stronger? I think maybe we can. A “successful lawyer” is not nearly so interesting as a lawyer who’s having some kind of problem. Alcoholic lawyers have probably been overdone. But there are all sorts of personal problems a lawyer can have. What personal problem can you give him? You want your reader to identify with your POV character, and many people don’t identify well with a guy who’s got it all. So take away some of “it” from that lawyer. Harry Potter was likeable, in part because he came out of such a miserable family–those dreadful Dursleys.
I’m wondering if you can backload the sentence in some way to put a kick in the teeth at the very end of the sentence? You have several highly emotive words there: vows, revenge, rape, murder, wife, daughter. They’re spread throughout the sentence and so the whole sentence is pretty heavy. You’ve got rape AND murder. You’ve got wife AND daughter. That’s a LOT. I’m wondering if you can say more about the villain who did it, if only to get a few neutral words in the middle of the sentence before you give us the kicker at the end.
On the other hand, I may be too picky here. This is an awfully strong sentence.
A resigned widower’s heart is mended by a woman who discovers she doesn’t have long to live.
Randy sez: The first thing I see here is the word “mended”. That’s a relief! It tells me I don’t NEED to read this story, because I know he’ll come out mended. I don’t think that’s what you want to do. Don’t tell me the solution. Tell me the problem and make me worry that there isn’t a solution.
The next thing I see is “resigned widower” which doesn’t intrigue me nearly as much as a “one-armed trapeze artist” or a “standup comedian with panic disorder” or any character that has some interior conflict. “Resigned” sounds boring, and Camille, your writing is absolutely stellar, not boring at all.
The last thing I see is that the lady doesn’t have long to live. And I wonder what’s wrong? Can you be more specific? Details!
A high school student possessed by the ghost of his older step-sister moves back to his hometown.
Randy sez: This starts with a lot of sizzle. The word “older” is not really needed here, since the ghost of any sister, younger or older, is just as interesting.
I’d say the ending could be stronger. He moves back to the old hometown and then . . . what? Where’s the conflict? What’s the story question?
This has tons of potential, but tell me why I have to keep turning the pages!
A naïve teenage girl searches for her parents in a post apocalyptic world.
Randy sez: I think this has all the elements of a strong story; it needs some sharpening though. Can you strengthen “naive teenager” a bit? What’s her internal conflict? Remember, Harry Potter isn’t just a “boy wizard.” He’s an “orphaned and oppressed boy wizard”.
My second question is: what happened to her parents? Are they dead? Lost? Kidnapped? Hiding? Can you give us a few details to bring them into focus?
Finally, it seems to me that the post-apocalyptic world might be better to put right at the beginning, so we can focus on the conflict. Setting is rarely as kicky as characters and conflict, so put the setting first. I’m thinking of something like this:
“In a post-apocalyptic world, a teen beggar searches for her wealthy kidnapped parents.” Or whatever. I’d like to see something that adds some intensity to the desire.
OK, that’s enough for today. Tomorrow, I’ll continue critiquing more of your one-sentence summaries.
A one-armed trapeze artist heckles a standup comedian with panic disorder into taking his place in a deadly high-wire showdown with a gang of obese elvis impersonators.
Daan Van der Merwe says
Thank you very much Randy!
Maybe I should say “Despite his firm Christian believes, a lawyer vows …”
A Christian is not supposed to be revengeful and, as you have taught us in Fiction 101, a character with conflicting values is an interesting character.
Yes, sadly alcoholic lawyers are indeed overdone. 🙂
Kristi Holl says
This is like a mini writing seminar on hooks and high concepts. Thanks for the hands-on teaching!
Gerhi Janse van Vuuren says
You can also push successful until it becomes a liability. A workaholic lawyer…? Maybe he blames himself for being absent when it happened?
Question: I should probably know this but, what is a high concept story?
Sheila Deeth says
This is neat and very helpful. Thanks, Randy.
I’ve recently picked up the snowflake method and have started writing some one sentence summaries, and blogging about the method.
The critiques here highlight for me the importance that a single sentence can have in determining whether something is broken or not.
Just today’s installement from Randy and I’ve already learnt a lot. For example, Elizabeth, in your summary “A gay Air Force officer and a Catholic lesbian get married, and then she leaves him for her best friend.” You seemed to have solved the problem. Imagine you say “A gay Air Force officer and a Catholic lesbian get married and lived together until she meets the officer’s sister.” More suspence?
Sure Randy, I’ve added your link to my blog!
Thanks Randy, the reason she andher parents are estranged is complez, so I’ll have to work on getting my head around that in as few words as possible. will ther be an opperrtunity to post the revised sentence later?
Cammille, if that ever gets published I’ll read it. 🙂
Randy, you’re going to be in Couer d’Alene when where why how? Please post…I’m not that far away and if you have a seminar I could go to, I’d be delighted. Or you could email me! 😉
bonne friesen says
Argh! I just got home from a week in North Idaho (close to Coeur D’Alene) with no internet access! I’ve been waiting for the one-sentence summary open audition since the one at the very beginning of this blog!
Please add mine to the 53 already posted:
Forbidden friends must reach the ruined Citadel to activate an ancient defense and save their land from invasion.
bonne friesen says
Maybe scratch “from invasion”. Closer to the 15 word mark that way, and a little more punch.
Melissa Stroh says
Hey Randy, me too Please!
I just now was able to check my email and am in desperate need of help with the one-sentence summary. I’m terribly wordy and for me trying to sum up an entire story in one sentence is like trying to chug a gallon of milk in an hour. You might be able to accomplish it, but in the end you’ll be sorry and have an even bigger mess to deal with. Okay, so maybe it’s not that intense, but I got your attention right?
So here it is:
The life of an Irish farmer’s daughter is altered through the deception of a nobleman and an ill-fated Viking raid.
Lea Ann McCombs says
Randy, thanks for the great tips! I’m working with my agent on the perfect one-page and elevator pitch. I think it’s harder than writing the whole novel!