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.