Last week, I challenged my loyal blog readers to do a one-paragraph summary of Star Wars. Several of you took up the challenge (this is hard!) and posted summaries.
In my opinion, the best summary was posted by Ben:
A young farm boy, who dreams of adventure, lives in a galaxy torn by rebellion and war. He is pushed into the conflict after his aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire for the droids he possesses. After joining a smuggler for cheap transportation, the boy and his mentor are captured by the Empire on their way to rescue a princess and, in the ensuing struggle, the mentor sacrifices himself. The boy and the smuggler save the princess and think they have escaped, only to learn the Empire has followed them to the Rebel base, intending to destroy the planet. Aided by his companions and the last lesson of his fallen mentor, the boy must exploit the hidden weakness of the Empire’s destructive weapon to preserve the Rebellion.
Randy sez: One thing I should have mentioned is that in a one-paragraph summary, you have enough space to use the names of the characters. In your one-sentence summary, you generally don’t have that luxury, but when you expand to a full paragraph, you have room for maybe 3 or 4 character names.
Let’s analyze Ben’s paragraph for the component parts:
Sentence 1 (The story setup): Ben gives us the primary character, “A young farm boy, who dreams of adventure.” He also gives the setting, “a galaxy torn by rebellion and war.” I’d say he scores well on both counts. This is a good solid setup.
Sentence 2 (The first disaster): Ben nails this one, “his aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire”. He also shows how this disaster leads to the first major turning point in the story, “He is pushed into the conflict.” The purpose of the first disaster is to commit the lead character irrevocably to the story. Up until Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he can back out of the story. But once he finds Beru and Owen dead, he knows that HE’S DEAD TOO unless he fights back. So he’s committed; he joins forces with Obi-wan Kenobi, knowing that he can never back out.
Sentence 3 (The second disaster): Ben again gets it exactly right, “the mentor sacrifices himself.” This is common in heroic stories. The mentor is there for part of the story, but then vanishes, leaving the lead character to swim in deep waters alone. From here on, Luke must fight his battles more and more on his own.
Sentence 4 (The third disaster): Ben gets this critical disaster right again, “Empire has followed them to the Rebel base, intending to destroy the planet.” The purpose of the third disaster is to force the end-game. In Luke’s case, he no longer has a choice about taking the battle to the enemy, because the enemy is taking the battle to him and to all the rebels. The stakes have been raised as high as they can go. After this final battle, if the Rebellion loses, it can’t fight another day because all its leaders will be destroyed.
Sentence 5 (The ending): Ben summarizes the ending here, “the boy must exploit the hidden weakness of the Empire’s destructive weapon to preserve the Rebellion.” This holds back just a little bit. It’s really OK here to tell the ending.
Overall, an excellent job, Ben! That is exactly the way you write a one-paragraph summary.
Here is the summary I wrote down on a piece of paper after my last blog. You’ll notice that it’s very similar to Ben’s, but I am using the names of the characters:
Luke Skywalker meets two mysterious droids who lead him to an old Jedi master, Obi-wan Kenobi. When Obi-wan asks him to help rescue Princess Leia, Luke refuses — until he finds his aunt and uncle murdered by Storm Troopers. Luke and Obi-wan join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca to rescue the princess — at the cost of the old man’s life. Luke and his friends escape and journey to the rebel planet, where they learn that they have been tracked by the Death Star. In the final battle, Luke uses the Force and some help from his friends to destroy the Death Star.
One thing to note that both Ben and I did in our one-paragraph summaries is that we “back-loaded” the disasters to the very end of Sentences 2, 3, and 4. This maximizes their emotive punch. You will note that in my presentation of the ending, I tell the finale — “destroy the Death Star.” When you summarize your story for an editor or agent, they don’t want you to be coy about the ending. They want to know if it’s a happy ending or a sad ending or something else. They’ll be OK with either kind, but they don’t want you to write a great story that ends with a muddle ending that leaves the reader saying, “Huh?”
OK, whaddaya think? I have no delusions that my one-paragraph summary is perfect. Are there ways to make it better? Remember that small differences matter. As Mark Twain observed, the difference between the good word and the exactly right word is the difference between the lighting bolt and the lightning bug.
If you can see how to improve my one-paragraph summary, post a comment here.
Both paragraphs are very good. But the difference in using names brings up a good point. I liked Ben’s paragraph because I could throw my own imagination (and perhaps some of myself) into who these characters are. But in Randy’s paragraph, specifying the names doesn’t leave room for that. Perhaps it’s the difference between a reader POV and a publisher POV.
When Randy uses ‘Storm Troopers’, I have no idea that they’re connected to the ‘Death Star’. For me, it didn’t really paint a strong antagonist (the Empire).
Using character names selectively does give you an idea about the flair of the characters.
Is either way definitively better? Should you always include names?
I’d like a sense of setting at the beginning of your graph, Randy, and a hint at Luke’s age. I tried to read this as if I hadn’t seen the movie. Therefore I have a couple of questions: What are Jedi, Chewbacca, Storm Trooper and Death Star? The last two are obviously associated with the bad guys, but who/what are the bad guys? There’s not enough info for me to know.
I guess it’s a toss up as to which is better in the summary graph: the character’s name or the character’s job. As the successful, published novelist, you have the final say on this one, Randy.
Pam Halter says
Now if I could only do that with my own novel! 🙂
Kind sir and fellow loyal blog readers,
This is all very educational, and truly I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but is anyone besides me frustrated that the story example used is an action story?
I for one would love to see an example of how to use this one-sentence and on-paragraph summary idea on a character-driven story.
I think it reads better with the character names but I think that there are a bit too many. If you arent originally familiar with the story you could get completely confused about so many names (And that includes words like “Death Star”) to remember.
Angel Ortega says
I also think Ben’s is clearer; I don’t know what those ‘Storm Tropper’ or ‘Death Star’ things are. I even find the use of ‘droid’ confusing, I would rather prefer ‘robot’ (I don’t know if it’s an english word, or even it’s patented or copyrighted). Without names, the flow of the story is less polluted with noise.
Randy, not sure what you have planned, but it’d be great to have us write a paragraph summary of our own WIP and post it here. Interesting to read and comment on summaries about stories we don’t know.
I like Ben’s first sentence better for both setting and characterization. The part “who dreams of adventure” gives us a good picture of Luke’s internal conflict when we first meet him. That conflict is important for all the back story it hints at (IMHO). Just a small difference that I think matters here.
Paul Epson says
Both paragraphs are good although different I however don’t feel so confortable with Randy’s paragraph.
Too many names are put in there, I think the choice of two or three would be more appropriate.
I feel like Ben’s more fluant and easy to read rather than Randys’, but let’s not forget that it is on a training purpose that Randy gave us this version.
Thank you for the lecon and hope to have more challenges soon.
I think I prefer Ben’s opening line, if he’d put in names, because it starts with more of a disastrous urging for Luke to become involved. Also, we do not know Princess Leia is the leader of the rebellion in your paragraph’s first sentence, nor why she needs rescuing and from whom. In sentence two, we do not know who Han Solo or Chewbacca are, and only now do we get an idea of who they are up against. But I like your ending better than Ben’s. So my suggestion would probably a blend of yours and his.
I like it becouse it had a good summary of the book.
I used this summary for my Reading Log….