Due to popular demand, we’ll continue critiquing the one-sentence summaries that many of you have posted here over the last couple of weeks.
Here’s one from Gary:
“You are me, and must kill you.”
Randy sez: I think this is a record for brevity. 7 words, 1 character, 1 plot. Only 22 letters!
The only problem is that I don’t understand the story. So I would say this one needs to be expanded a bit. There are two issues to be expanded. What does “you are me” mean? I could make some guesses, but in a one-sentence summary, you don’t want the reader guessing–you want them to KNOW. Secondly, why must you kill you? There needs to be a reason, some motivation for it. Killing is never interesting in isolation. There has to be a reason. The reason the Jackal wants to kill Charlie DeGaulle in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is that half a million dollars (in big, fat, juicy 1962 dollars) was waiting for him if he succeeded. And he came THAT close to succeeding.
Robert posted this one:
A swordsmith’s son must save the kingdom of Britain from a mysterious black stone’s enchantment.
Randy sez: This is a good strong one-sentence summary. Can it be stronger? Yes, possibly, on a couple of points:
Point one: I’m going to guess that a swordsmith’s son would also likely be a swordsmith himself. (If not, what is he?) So could we replace “swordsmith’s son” with “_______ swordsmith”? I don’t know what goes in the blank–that depends on what his inner conflict. But there’s no doubt that if he was a one-armed swordsmith (or fibromyalgic or dislexic or WHATEVER), he’d be a more interesting guy.
Point two: What is that black stone’s enchantment doing, exactly? This might be hard to answer, but it seems it could be more specific. Is that stone playing bagpipe music that enslaves those pesky Brits? Does it exude the odor of frying bacon, driving them mad with hunger? Does it emit microwave mind-control messages from Merlin? I’m being a little goofy here, but the question is whether you can be more specfic. Abstraction is great for mathematical physics, but in fiction, concreteness is good.
A research engineer and a Hopewell shaman, separated in time by 1800 years, work together to fight an ancient evil entity.
Randy sez: This sounds quite promising. What kind of “research engineer”? Does it matter which field he’s in? If not, then does it even matter that he’s an engineer? What skills does he bring to this battle with the evil entity? Why must he be an engineer in order for this story to work?
The Hopewell shaman is pretty specific. I’m going to guess he or she is the one who’s living 1800 years ago. I don’t know if it’s possible to say what year the shaman lives in, but it might be worthwhile trying to figure out if the sentence could be rewritten to tell us.
The big questions I have are about the nature of that ancient evil entity. Who is it and what are its powers? What is the nature of the battle? In what way could an engineer help? What is Mr. Evil Entity trying to achieve?
Laura posted this one:
A savy businesswoman dumps it all for aspirations to be a groom on a dude ranch.
Randy sez: OK, maybe it’s time to see what my loyal blog readers have learned in the last couple of weeks. I’ll critique this one tomorrow, but first I’d like to see what you all have to say about it. What would you tell Laura if she came to you with this one-sentence summary?
Gerhi Janse van Vuuren says
Ok, I got it on the second read. Maybe it is because I have no idea what a dude ranch is because my immediate reaction was: “businesswoman?” shouldn’t she be the bride?
I would say that “dumps it all” needs to be more specific. Was she CEO of her own company or just one of the faceless cubicle masses. You can be savy without being on the top of the heap.
I think “aspirations” is not a strong enough verb. It is not really in the realm of action yet. Does she “run away”, “pursue it with dedication”, or “defy all odds”?
Here’s is an alternative suggestion:
“A rising businesswoman shuns a promotion to CEO and run away to tame wild horses.”
I know that taming wild horses is not the same as grooming but personally reading a book about grooming horses would be about as exciting as reading about somebody that gives it all up to vacuum carpets.
Have I learned anything Randy?
Gerhi Janse van Vuuren says
I also didn’t vote for the continuation but I like the suggestion of critting one a day at the back end of another topic discussion, if that works.
I learn something every time and my one liner keeps improving (I hope).
23 words first version:
A reluctant father has to step up and attempt an impossible rescue when his son is kidnapped by a couple from another dimension.
15 words second version:
A reluctant unbelieving father crosses dimensions to steal his kidnapped son from a fanatic couple.
14 words new version (after input from my wife):
A disengaged father steal back his three year old son from a mirror dimension.
My question: How do I put into that one line a sense that I hope a lot of the book will be humorous even though the concept is serious? In other words, when do you indicate the style of writing?
Daan Van der Merwe says
I’m not sure what a “dude” ranch is, but it is a great sentence. 16 words and 1 plot. There should be at least one more character. The boss of the ranch maybe? Or a competing wannabe groom? What is he/she like?
PS. I always thought a dude was a really cool guy down in Florida, until I met Laura.
Dale Emery says
Consider replacing savvy with successful. That shows more clearly that she is sacrificing her success and the trappings that go with it.
Or maybe something stronger than successful: Maybe she’s on the verge of some major accomplishment, the kind that any “sane” successful business woman would die for.
Drop aspirations. She dumps it all to /be/ a groom. (Though “be” isn’t the snappiest verb)
What makes being a groom so important to her? What major obstacle stands in her way?
Not sure how to fit all of that in, so here’s the best I can do at 1:30am:
A businesswoman chucks her success to groom horses at a dude ranch.
Parker Haynes says
First add the second “v” to savvy.
A savvy businesswoman abandons a promising career to groom horses on a dude ranch.
Cut from 16 words to 14 and lose the weak “to be”
Laura, is this an improvement?
Charlotte Babb says
A savvy marketer abandons her career to muck out her life grooming dude ranch horses.
A stockbroker trades seven figures for horse sense by grooming at a dude ranch.
Katie Hart says
“Businesswoman” is too bland. What type of business is she in? What level is she in the company? Interest me in the character and give me a chance to see how hard she worked for what she’s about to give up.
“Dumps it all” is vague. What does she lose besides her job? House, family, friends, romantic relationship?
“For aspirations” doesn’t add information. If she’s doing it she’s doing it. Delete.
“To be a groom on a dude ranch” This is solid, except for the second glance at the word groom. You could change it to “to groom horses”, which adds clarity.
Andra M. says
My biggest question is why. Why does she want to become a groom? Is it a childhood dream she couldn’t let go of? Does she seek to gain the attentions of another “Dude” she happened to meet earlier?
Me too. Why?
Mark Goodyear says
My first thought was a little confusion over the word “groom.” It’s clear on a second, but the word’s multiple meanings gave me a reading hiccup there.
My second thought was that I wanted more detail about what she was giving up. A CEO abandoning her company is a lot different than an advertising executive getting tired of selling air time. (City Slickers?)
Ultimately though, I agree with Andra. I want to know why she’s motivated to groom horses.
Debbie Thorkildsen says
Laura: I’d like to see a hook at the end of your one sentence summary. Make me want to read it. Help me understand why a successful business woman would give it all up to muck out stalls.
Any suggestions for my one sentence summaries?
A pregnant teen must suffer her obstetric father’s decisions and the fate of her child. -15 words
An outcast teen deals with a gang of female bullies for the last time. -14 words
If I’ve learned anything from Randy, I’d say raise the stakes. One way to raise the stakes is to replace the ambiguity in your summary with specifics, as others have suggested. A “savvy businesswoman” doesn’t have as much to lose as, say, “a public relations firm’s first female CEO” (although that phrasing sounds a bit awkward).
Also, as others have asked, why does the MC want to groom horses at a dude ranch? I think articulating the reason would add a big-time kicker. Maybe something like, “The CEO of a highly reputed public relations firm creates her first scandal by running away to groom horses at a dude ranch.” This summary is longer than 15 words, and of course I’m inventing details since I don’t know the story, but this is the kind of plot description that would stir my curiosity. In my example, the phrase “creates her first scandal” following “The CEO of a highly reputed public relations firm” implies that the MC is tired of a pristine but dull reputation and wants a lifestyle makeover. Now that sounds intriguing.
Ditto the questions to Laura on what Savvy’s giving up and why. What’s the “it” she’s dumping? What drives her “aspirations”?
Gerhi sez: My question: How do I put into that one line a sense that…the book will be humorous even though the concept is serious? In other words, when do you indicate the style of writing?
Good question, Gerhi. I wonder that too. That’s why this is so tough! Do we need to indicate style or voice too? One word inserted could lend a touch of humor or voice, but maybe that’s just one more thing to keep in mind in addition to brevity and powerful word choices.
“A skeptical father must enter another dimension to rescue his young son.”
But I don’t know how to add the humor word. ‘from crazed fanatics’ or ‘from lunatics’ comes to mind…but that describes my home, so nothing out of the ordinary about that.
Mary Hake says
I agree with many of the comments and questions. I see Laura’s sentence lacks conflict with another character. That is what draws the reader in. Her summary prompts many questions, but doesn’t give me enough info to make me want to read the book. Is she trying to escape or hide from something/someone? Is she attracted to someone at the ranch? What would be so strong it would motivate such a drastic change? I think we need a glimpse in the summary.
What type of businesswoman? Does she own a boutique? Is she on Wall Street?
What career is she dumping and what were her aspirations? What motivated her to dump it? Does she do so impulsively? Why?
As for putting it into one sentence, well, that’s why I read this blog. I’m still learning how to do this writing thing, so can’t help you there yet.
M.L. Eqatin says
I could be wrong, but it seems that this novel will appeal to readers who like horses and/or nature and are fed up with the rat race. So like Gerhi, I’d start with a few words that sum up the protagonist’s success. But I don’t think tension and explosions and frenetic drama is what will draw in the overworked target reader. This strikes me as low-concept, relationship-oriented, experiential material, not the thriller suspense type. So I’d finish with something that appeals to the ‘chuck it all’ mentality most cubicle workers secretly harbor. A promise that at least vicariously, you will be able to live free of the 9-to-5 grind in these pages. Words that emphasize the kind of relationship between horses and nature the character craves. So here’s my best shot:
“A rising executive flees her corporate job only to discover that wilderness and horses have their own hazards.”
And as you can see, I like alliteration. I think that used in moderation, alliteration and rhymes help a sentence stick in the brain. 5,000 ad jungles can’t be wrong.
Lois Hudson says
This has been, and is, a great tutorial. I’ve been practicing along with you all without submitting anything yet. Gerhi’s suggestion of continuing with one a day critiquing at the end of another subject’s discussion would be helpful, while allowing progress on another subject.
My own attempts:
During worldwide cessation of births, renowned inventor of artificial womb, guilty over own abortion, fights adulation and ridicule over belief God has closed the womb.
Seems like it’s already been said but I agree “groom” through me. I’d like to know what exactly she’s dumping, and what’s her motivation for grooming horses?
Lois Hudson says
🙂 M.L.E. – Wouldn’t Eliza and Professor Higgins have a field day with your sentence!
David Benedict says
Laura, There doesn’t seem to be enough conflict or cost here, or it can be more clearly spelled out.
With her ad business skyrocketing, a woman’s fiance’ threatens to dump her if she dumps her success to work horses on a remote ranch.
That’s too long, but we’re looking for more detail and conflict here.
Sarah Sawyer says
I’ve been lurking through this interesting discussion of one-liners, and attempting to apply it to my work. I’ve seen 15 words or less mentioned several times. Is this an absolute essential for a one-liner or is something in the ballpark of 15-25 words acceptable?
Any thoughts? Opinions? Thanks!
Laura Drake says
Wow, thanks for choosing my sentence as the lesson Randy – and to everyone for commenting. I had thought the questions it left you with would be enough to entice you to read on…but looks like you need more info for that. Can’t wait to see tomorrow’s blog.
M.L. Eqatin says
Lois: I have heard hurricanes hardly happen to horse-harried heroines.
Well I’m gunna be nit-picky here and say that it lacks conflict.
Lois Hudson says
Deputy Manager of Ingermansons Corporations choses between her career and wedding a dude in Cadillac ranch
With the amount of information given, I submit —
A successful CEO abandons her high-stress lifestyle for the simplicity of grooming horses on a dude ranch. Though this may not define the exact problem, it is an attempt to supply some sort of conflict. I think successful CEO is a better draw than savvy businesswoman, but if it doesn’t fit, oh well.
I also agree with the comments about moving on but including a one liner at the end of the posts.