Yesterday, I challenged my loyal blog readers to write a one-sentence summary of Star Wars. I promised to pick a winner today.
Now it should be obvious that there is no objective way to do this, just as there is no objective way to rate fiction. We all know that some fiction is fantastic, some is good, some is mediocre, and some is tripe. It’s just that one person’s “fantastic” is another person’s “tripe.”
So the goal here is to learn to write the kind of one-sentence summaries that are going to get the attention of editors and agents. Do that and it won’t matter whether Randy thinks your sentence is any good.
With that enormous load of caveats firmly in mind, let me tell you what I think makes a good one-sentence summary.
First, it should be short. The reason–so you can memorize it easily, say it quickly, and have the editor/agent understand it immediately.
Second, it should be neither too vague nor too precise. The reason–too vague is unlikely to excite anyone; too precise is automatically going to be too long to say on that pesky elevator.
Third, it needs to connect emotively. The reason–because the main purpose of fiction is to give the reader a powerful emotional experience, so the one-sentence summary needs to make some sort of a promise as to what sort of emotional experience is going to be delivered.
Given all that, here is the one-sentence summary that I wrote yesterday in one minute. It’s not the best possible, but it gets the job done: “A young farm boy joins the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.”
Does this meet the requirements I gave above? Yes.
First, it’s only 11 words, 7 of which are one-syllable words. So this is easy to remember and say quickly.
Second, the sentence is neither vague nor precise. We have “a young farm boy” which tells us what category of person we’ve got, without too many details. We’ve also got a “Rebellion” (capitalized, which tells us something already) which defines what kind of story this is. And we’ve got a “Galactic Empire” which tells us enough to be going on with, but doesn’t tell us all the boring details.
Third, there are several emotive buttons I am punching here. “Young farm boy” immediately punches the “underdog” button. “Rebellion” (capitalized) tells us that there’s a war on, and that the good guys are the ones rebelling. Both of these punch all sorts of emotive buttons in humans. “Galactic Empire” tells us that we have a vast, overwhelmingly powerful evil opponent.
So my sentence is quite serviceable, and I wouldn’t be ashamed to use it to pitch this story, if I were a young George Lucas trying to get this movie made.
But can we do better? The answer, I think, is yes we can. I read through all the ideas posted by my loyal blog readers, and one of them immediately jumped out at me, posted by Destiny. Here is Destiny’s winning entry: “A farm boy journeys with a jedi master to rescue a rebel princess and fight against the empire.”
This is 18 words, which is a bit long, but what I like here is that Destiny is punching some more emotive buttons: “Jedi master” connotes some sort of mystical force to be used; “rebel princess” is terrific, by connoting war, politics, and love all in one shot (any time there’s a princess in a story, it’s very likely to be a love story).
I also take note of runner-up Marcus Goodyear’s entry: “A young farm boy joins the rebellion against an evil empire–armed with secret plans, quirky robots, and a mysterious connection to the Force.”
You will note that Marcus and I independently came up with almost identical wording for the first 11 words. The only differences are: I capitalized “Rebellion” and Marcus didn’t; I called it “the Galactic Empire” and Marcus called it “an evil empire.” I’ll discuss a little later why I prefer “Galactic” to “evil”.
The problem with Marcus’s sentence is that it went on to add more details. In my view, those should be saved for later. When the editor or agent says, “Oooh, that sounds cool! Tell me more!”–that’s the time to bring in the secret plans, droids, and Force.
Let me commend a few other entries. Ben suggested this one: “A farm boy in a far away galaxy joins a courageous Rebellion against an evil Empire.”
Randy sez: Again, this is a very strong sentence. I like the “far away galaxy” because we all know how emotively powerful that phrase was in the opening seconds of the movie–so much so that it’s become a buzz-phrase. There are two issues I have with Ben’s sentence: the words “courageous” and “evil”. I prefer not to make value judgments in the one-sentence summary. The reason is because this is “telling” when you really want to let the editor/agent draw their own conclusions on who is courageous and who is evil. People don’t like to be told; they like to figure it out.
I also liked Sean’s entry: “A farm boy crosses the galaxy to rescue a princess from the man who killed his father.”
Randy sez: This is strong and short and punches many emotive buttons. But it’s missing one thing. Remember how Star Wars made you feel? That there is an enormous, huge Galaxy controlled by an evil Empire? The blackness and vastness of space on the screen gives you an overpowering desire to join the Rebellion and battle monstrous evil. Sean’s entry isn’t capturing the bigness of the plot. Star Wars is about more than the man who killed Luke’s father; it’s about a galaxy’s freedom from oppression.
Carrie’s entry also caught my eye, just because it chose to focus on someone other than Luke: “A dark mystic pursues a farm boy who possesses blueprints of a planet-destroying weapon.”
Randy sez: It sometimes works better to write a one-sentence summary about the villain of the story. In the case of Star Wars, I think it works better to focus on the hero. HOWEVER, I applaud Carrie for trying something out of the ordinary. That is always a good thing. Don’t just try one idea! Try a bunch! Try weird things that you don’t think will work. You can always reject them if they’re not as good. But you might learn something.
Having said all that, can we improve my original one-sentence summary? I think we can. Here’s my next cut at it: “A young farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.”
This is now 14 words instead of my original 11, but it adds one new emotive button–the princess. That is good because it broadens the appeal. If I can revert to highly sexist and misleading categories, this changes the story from a story for “boys” into a story for “both boys and girls.” You are all smart enough to know that gender stereotypes are frequently wrong but often have a grain of truth. You are all also smart enough to see that grain of truth here and not waste our time attacking those pesky stereotypes, which I’m sure we all despise.
The fact is that Star Wars had broad appeal–to men, women, rich, poor, old, young. It had action and SF and romance and mysticism. The one-sentence summary that I have given above captures all of that except the mystical element. I don’t know if it’s possible to squeeze the Force into the one-sentence summary. In my view, sometimes less is more.
Any comments, suggestions, ideas? Can we improve this one-sentence summary any further? Do you see any problems I’ve not noticed?
Go ahead and post a comment here if you think we can. Next week, we’ll expand this one-sentence summary out to a one-paragraph summary.
See ya then!