Today we’ll analyze a one-sentence storyline for a novel involving a massive conspiracy. But don’t tell anyone!
Seth posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hey Randy, I’m new to this website, but I’ve already learned lots from your articles. I just recently started looking at the blog page, and was wondering if you were still doing one sentence critiques. I noticed that they were in March, so I may be behind the times, but hopefully you can still take a look at this.
“An adopted boy’s search for his real parents accidently uncovers a massive conspiracy that may threaten millions of lives, including his.”
Randy sez: I periodically run clinics on this blog to critique one-sentence storylines. It’s a great exercise for every novelist, and you can always improve. The last clinic was in March and we worked for a couple of weeks on submitted storylines. We certainly didn’t run out of them, but we just couldn’t do them all. Let’s analyze Seth’s storyline in detail, a few words at a time:
“An adopted boy’s search for his real parents…” is a good way to start out a storyline. It’s been done before, of course, but no story is ever completely original, so that’s not a bad thing. A search for parents strikes an emotional chord in just about everyone. This sounds like it’s going to be an intensely personal story.
“…accidently uncovers a massive conspiracy…” now switches gears and shows that the story is both personal and public. That’s good. Any story that threatens lots of people is going to be interesting to a large group of readers. But the wider the scale of the story, the more important it is to personalize it. It’s a lot easier to care about the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War when you are personally invested in the lives of Scarlett and Melanie.
A couple of issues that should be addressed:
- The correct spelling of the word should be “accidentally.”
- It’s not clear to me that it matters that the discovery is accidental. If not, then it’s best to trim this word, because every single word in a one-sentence storyline needs to be necessary. A 14-word sentence is better than a 15-word sentence, all other things being equal.
- Massive conspiracies are good stuff, and they form the foundation of many good novels. However, there’s the rub — many other good novels have had massive conspiracies. The editor is going to be asking, “How is this massive conspiracy different from all other massive conspiracies?” Seth, you MUST answer that question in this storyline. Unless you do, the editor thinks, “It’s been done. No thanks.” So what you really need to do is explain in a few words what the massively conspiring conspirators hope to achieve. Do they want to destroy the Federal Reserve? Emasculate all the fighting men in the US Army? Corner the market on rum-flavored teddy bears? Each of these is a different (and undoubtedly fascinating) story. Each of these is UNIQUE.
“…that may threaten millions of lives, including his.” It’s a fine thing to threaten millions of lives in a novel. It’s an even finer thing to threaten the life of the protagonist. However, this is not something you want to tell. It’s something you want to show.
Just as an example, suppose that I have a story about a terrorist plan to explode a nuclear weapon at the Super Bowl (the storyline of one of Tom Clancy’s novels, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS.) If Tom wrote a one-sentence storyline, it might go like this: “Arab terrorists create a nuclear bomb with plans to detonate it at the Super Bowl in Denver.”
With that level of detail, it’s really not necessary to add a phrase about the number who might be killed: “Arab terrorists create a nuclear bomb with plans to detonate it at the Super Bowl in Denver, which may threaten millions of lives.”
See the difference? When you tell specifically what the disaster is, you don’t also have to tell what the horrible consequences are. You also don’t need to add that the hero of the story also might get killed.
If the storyline were a bit more specific, I could make some tweaks to tighten it up. However, in this case, I don’t know enough about the story to know exactly how to do that. I don’t know what sort of conspiracy this is or what the possible consequences are. So all I can say is this: Make it more specific and you’ll have a good strong storyline.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.