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!
This really gets tough when you start trying to punch as many emotive buttons as possible while staying under a low word count.
A young farm boy gains mystic powers to help a princess rebel against the Galactic Empire.
16 words. I wanted to include “in a far away galaxy,” but with so many things to include I don’t know that the idea communicated is important enough to use five words on it.
I have a good one but its not about just Luke. ” The skywalker name is the galaxy’s most known name ever.”
Jonathan Byrd says
A young, orphaned farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
Avily Jerome says
I’ve been out of town- bummer, because that would have been fun to enter. Let’s see how I do improving:
Pursued by the Galactic Empire, farm-boy Luke joins with with a Rebel princess to destroy the Emipre’s ultimate weapon.
(21 words- a little long, sorry. 🙂
Or, to try a different route:
Can farm-boy Luke and the Rebel princess he rescues destroy the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon?
(Only sixteen words, but I feel like it lacked some of the punch of the other one… I dunno. You’re the expert. 🙂
Bonne Friesen says
A farm boy fights the Galactic Empire as he discovers he is strong in the Force.
I haven’t read through the rest, but this is my take.
To me the princess, the “it’s a traaaap”and the rakish pirate/pilot are all fine but not the point. They’re plot, and to me Star Wars is theme. Little guy, hidden power within, causes downfall of bad guy. Mythic. But that’s me.
I strongly considered adding ‘mystic’ before Force, assuming the reader didn’t know what the Force is.
I think Bonne has a good point. The princess, while certainly another emotional bullet point, doesn’t seem quite as important. Leia is important (as are the other characters) but not because of her royalty. What about:
A young farm boy develops mystical powers and joins the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
That’s 15 words, and I think it hits the most important points. Of course, for only one more word I was able to fit in Leia above, but I didn’t really like the way that sentence minimized the Rebellion.
That was fun. Give us more assignments, master.
I think the word “Galactic” or “Mystic” is particularly important in this story. Why? Because even though like all stories, star wars provides an emotional experience, what differentiated it from the common small town boy takes on big time villians was the fact that it was inter-galactial, and also about the Jedi organization. I also agree with Randy when he says that Princess Leia will add an emotive touch to the story and broaden the readership.
So ya, with these two elements you classify a few genres of the movie/book: sci fi, fantasy, epic adventure, maybe even a touch of romance.
When I read the entries yesterday I was struck at how often the ‘young farm boy’ phrase appeared. That phrase means nothing here in Australia, and especially doesn’t carry underdog status as it seems to do in the US. I suppose that’s a cultural difference that’s hard to bridge.
And Luke’s character is never underdog in my mind anyway. So my retake of Randy’s summary is this-
A boy from nowhere joins a fugitive princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.”
I’ve been thinking.
While it may be true that the “princess” thing is a trap, well, that’s what it’s meant to be, isn’t it? Ok, maybe not exactly a trap, but if I had written Star Wars, I’d be trying to lure the agent/publisher in. That’s what the Sentence Summary is for: selling the book. So, the princess is important.
I have to disagree with Ben, here, when he says that Leia is not important because of her being royalty: she is important in several ways to the story, but “princess” is a magic word that *will* draw readers, and therefore, agents/publishers.
I had disregarded the principle when posting my own entry yesterday, and only focused on theme (the rebellion, Luke’s identity issues…). If I had paused to think, and considered the Sentence Summary as the attention-grabbing tool it is, I’d have done it differently.
Farm boy and rebel princess fight galactic tyrant.
Ok, I cheated with the articles, but it’s only 8 words! 🙂
Also, I know Randy said to concentrate on one or two characters, but wouldn’t
Farm boy,rogue pilot and rebel princess fight galactic tyrant,
add a “who-will-get-the-girl” element? And it’s ten words.
And still, since I agree with Destiny about the Jedi/Force theme,
Farm boy with mystical powers and Rebel-leader princess fight galactic tyrant.
Twelve words. Or, again:
Farm boy with mystical powers and Rebel-leader princess join forces against galactic tyrant,
Because the process of making allies is important to the story too. Fourteen.
Robert Treskillard says
Very helpful, Randy!
I’m getting ready to send of a completed proposal, so this gives me fuel to relook at my one sentence summary to make sure it is the best it can be.
Carrie Stuart Parks says
How fun! Maybe if we focus on Luke’s status rather than his job? Orphan boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. 12 words.
Hi Randy! I’d remove the “young” from “young farm boy” because “boy” already connotes youth. This version is 18 words long, but I think it would still work in an elevator. My preference is for stronger verbs than “joins” and “gains.”
A farm boy and a rebel princess take a desperate stand against the Dark Empire enslaving their galaxy.
I tend to agree with Kim that “farm boy” doesn’t give a realistic picture. Because we seem to be using “rebellion” as the theme, I also like Kim’s use of “fugitive princess” rather than “rebel princess.” I like Carrie’s emphasis, but would change “boy” to “youth.” The following suggestion is a composite of other good points – I don’t claim creativity for it – rather the result of our brainstorming here.
Orphaned youth joins fugitive princess and rogue pilot in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
Sheila Deeth says
I missed this, but loved the sentences and analysis. A really useful exercise that I think I’ll pass on to friends (just in case they’ve not been following your blog, which I’ve already passed on to them.)
Jonathan Byrd says
An orphaned farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
“young boy” is redundant. “orphan” is a more emotional button that “young” and more universal than “farm.” As we can see, some cultures actually view farmers as having social status; that’s a political discussion for elsewhere.
The princess, it seems to me, makes the story more believable and, to me, that means more compelling. An orphaned farm boy against the Galactic Empire? Yeah, right. But wait, there’s a princess involved. A-ha! Maybe he has a chance; princesses have armies, or at least a small following. So, how does the orphaned farm boy hook up with her? Now, I’m curious, rather than incredulous.
You might not know what the Rebellion, with a capital “r” means, like most of the world would ask, “Which civil war?” Similar for the Galactic Empire. It sounds like bad sci-fi, how they just throw out words, like, “He jumped on the krypton-blaster and sped away.” I’d like to know what that a ‘krypton-blaster’ is before you go speeding away on it. So, assuming that our readers are absolutely clueless, or possibly Australian, how about:
An orphaned boy joins a princess in the rebellion against an evil empire.
Boy, that’s stripped down. The only adjectives are “orphaned” and “evil.” Very prime. This is fun, Randy.
I like the switch to “orphaned.” I think it pushes a more emotive and more universally understood button.
The explanations of “princess” have helped as well. I especially like the function Byrd pointed out, with the word acting as a link between the disparate terms “orphan” and “rebellion.”
I’m toying with the idea of ditching “joins” in favor of something a little more punchy. Like:
An orphaned youth rescues a princess and rebels against a galactic empire.
12 words. I think the empire should not be capitalized if, as here, an upper case “Rebellion” is not used.
Hey everybody, Luke is not an orphan. Remember his very alive father has a big place in the story.
However, Luke is highly representative of what is called the ‘hero mythologem’, which means his story fits many of the requirements for him to be a hero in a classical sense. This should not surprise us as George Lucas consulted with Joseph Campbell, one of the world’s great authorities on mythology and mythic themes.
If you would like to see the classical shape of a hero’s life, check out the work of Lord Raglan here.
“Orphan” still seems an appropriate term to refer to him by, however, because within the first movie he is thought to be an orphan. His mother is dead and, until the second movie, we are led to believe that his father is dead as well. For the purposes of selling only the first movie, it seems simplest to call him an orphan.
Pam Halter says
Kim has a point, but we dont’ know about Luke’s father in the beginning and we’re trying to pitch the movie from the beginning, right?
I’m wondering about Han Solo and Chewbacca. They are just as important Princess Leia and are in all three movies.
Marcus Goodyear says
This whole post and all the comments make me smile. So I spent this morning playing Star Wars Legos with my kids–which included some pirates, bug marbles, and a castle.
Also, this inspired me to browse the taglines on IMDB.com where I found the original tag: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
The descriptive summary on Netflix was interesting too: “In a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas put himself on the pop culture map and cemented his status as a legend with this classic battle between good and evil. Intrepid Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), his trusty droids, and smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) face off against Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), trying to save Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and destroy the Death Star. And a little help from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) never hurts.”
Neither of those are really elevator pitches, though.
“young” and “boy” in the same sentence is redundant. A “boy” by definition is a young person…
young and boy are redundant, plus farm makes 3 “innocent” buttons — turns me off.
Handsome orphan — adds sex and implies youth…