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.
Adam Leigh says
Just a personal quirk, but putting the word “massive” before conspiracy rubs me wrong, like you’re trying to over compensate for something.
Also it’s not clear if the conspiracy involves a massive amount of people or it’s a conspiracy to affect massive amounts of people. Presumably the latter, given that it’s stated to threaten millions, which then makes “massive” as a descriptor superfluous.
Agreed. “Massive conspiracy” sounds kind of cliche and the vagueness of what the threat is exactly makes the sentence smack of “An adopted boy’s search for his real parents accidently uncovers a Real Bad Thing that can Kill Lots of People.” Sounds like a trope — which isn’t necessarily bad if that’s what you’re going for, but I will venture a guess that your plan for the story is something uniquely interesting and fascinating. Tease your potential readers and give them a taste of what that Really Horrible Thing is in your story. Good luck! Keep us posted. 🙂
Hey guys! Thanks for your input. I must say it’s a bit embarrassing that I didn’t catch that spelling error! Oh well.
The problem I keep coming up with is that the conspiracy doesn’t get revealed until at least half way through the novel, and it’s supposed to be a surprise for the reader. I’m not sure how specific I can get without spoiling the surprises that await. As for being cliché, I will try to come up with a different way to word the one sentence, but with a limited amount of words I find myself cutting it short before I can explain more about it.
I took what you said and modified the sentence. This is what I came up with.
“An adopted boy’s search for his parents uncovers a world renowned businessman’s plot to get rid of all inferior people.”
It still seems like it needs some work, but I made it a bit more specific, and got rid of the redundant adjectives. The businessman is known in that time about as well as we would know BIll Gates. I’m not sure if world renowned is a good way to describe that or not, so if anyone has a better adjective for that please let me know.
Also, if the setting is important, (this story is set about 60 years in the future) should that be part of the one sentence storyline? Or is that the kind of thing you would put on the back of the novel?
Sorry for the super long post, I hope the new sentence works better!
Randy sez: OK, that’s a problem, if we don’t learn about the conspiracy until the midpoint of the book. It seems like this is the main problem for our lead character, and if neither he nor the reader knows about it until midway into the book, then I have to ask what’s going to carry the story for all those pages. My strong hunch is that your story will be stronger if AT LEAST the reader learns about this conspiracy within the first quarter of the book. Preferably the lead character should also, though it’s OK if he’s just struggling toward that knowledge, so long as he knows that Something Terrible Is Wrong With The World.
I think your new sentence is better. Can we improve on it even more? Instead of “world renowned businessman,” can we change it “the world’s richest man?” That has the advantage that the editor who hears this will mentally insert Bill Gates (though Bill is presumably a much nicer guy). Also, I wonder if we can get more specific about those pesky “inferior people.” There are a lot of ways to be “inferior.” Is it inferior in height? IQ? Weight? Bank account? Each of these leads to a subtly different story. By getting specific, you help to create a vision of what your story is in your editor’s mind, which is always a good thing because then she buys into it more readily and may even begin making helpful suggestions.
Bernard S. Jansen says
Randy, thanks for this. I find it easier to learn about a concept when a not-quite-perfect example is taken apart. It’s much harder to learn from a perfect example, in isolation.
Richard Albert says
I think the single sentence story exercise is a wonderful way to practice boiling down a story to its core elements. But I’m a little confused on its actual usage.
Since I’m unpublished and have a thirst for info on the industry, I’ve scoured what I could find on the ‘net. I have yet to locate where this one story sentence is actually used. Most query advice (including from agent blogs I’ve read) says nothing about the single sentence story. Rather, they want us to jump into the inciting incident in a more narrative form.
So my question is: Other than for our own personal use (and to ensure we have a story worth telling), what’s the point from a business / sales pitch perspective?
Randy sez: I use it in my “Executive Summary” page of a book proposal. However, the most common use of the one-sentence summary is the so-called “elevator pitch.” The scenario is this: You’re at a writing conference and you get in the elevator on the first floor going up one flight. An agent walks in beside you, and just to be friendly, says, “Hi, Richard! What sort of fiction are you writing?”
You now have 5 seconds to say something. If you have a strong one-sentence storyline memorized, you can spiel it out right now. If it’s good, the agent will know what to do next. If it’s bad, the awkward moment will last only a few seconds and then the agent is gone for good.
In my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, I explain in chapter 8 about the “selling chain” — the sequence of people that need to be sold on the concept of a book in order to make it a commercial success. The chain begins with an acquisitions editor and ends with the reader. Each step on the chain must be intact. The best way anyone has ever found for keeping that chain intact is to create a one-sentence storyline that can be easily remembered and passed along. The shorter the better, because you don’t want your message corrupted as it passes from one link to the next.
Speaking of Bill, how about “a famous philanthropist” or “the world’s richest philanthropist”? “Businessman” kind of implies “evil”, but “philanthropist”, on the other hand, implies “good”. The dichotomy sounds intriguing, at least for me.
The details I think would help clarify the sentence:
– Something beyond just an adopted boy like clues to age, hobby, criminal record, etc…
– A clue as to how he uncovers the plot
– What makes him inferior?
– Do you need the businessman (Mr. X) in the sentence to make it interesting? Is the purpetrator of the plot as important as the plot.
To me the strong emotive punches are the parent search and the death of millions. Since I don’t know your exact story line, I have improvised a couple details in the following example:
“An adopted teen hacker’s parent search uncovers a plan to kill all unwanted kids.”
An adopted teen hacker is interesting on so many levels, with a personal connection to three big segments (techno-geeks, teens and adoptees.) You have the personal element of the parent search. And last, but not least, you have a plot that kills millions of kids, including him. All in a 14 word sentence.
Daniel Smith says
Building on Gabriel’s thought, how about billionaire philanthropist. Of course that sounds cliche and the book is set in the future, so how about trillionaire philanthropist?
And Luke, don’t forget about the teen angst angle. You must mention the angst. 😉
The place I most frequently see one-sentence synopses used is the book descriptions when I am doing a catalog search on my local library’s website.
To take an example of a recently popular novel (Eclipse from the Twilight series), when you view this catalog entry it says: “Bella must choose between her friendship with Jacob and her relationship with Edward but when Seattle is ravaged by a mysterious string of killings, the three of them need to decide whether their personal lives are more important than the well-being of an entire city.”
Well, if he’s trying to rid the people of inferior humans then he’s hardly a philanthropist, lol. Of course, that could be his cover… 😛
It might be hard to succinctly define what, in the evil overlord businessman’s mind, constitutes “inferior” since there could be a myriad of reasons that would qualify. Maybe (similar to ethnic cleansing), “social cleansing”? Just an idea.
“An adopted boy’s search for his parents uncovers a billionaire mogul’s terrifying “social cleansing” scheme.”