Yesterday, we analyzed a one-sentence storyline posted by Seth. Today, we’ll be looking at four different variants of a storyline posted by a different reader, Daniel, and we’ll try to optimize his work.
Daniel posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have a question about One-Sentence Summaries / Storylines regarding their scale and scope. Here are 4 that I developed for my WIP:
(A) A teenage detective tracks down his father’s killer. (9 words)
(B) A teenage detective with a sleeping disorder tracks down his father’s killer. (13 words)
(C) A teenage detective with a sleeping disorder turns his curse into a strength to track down his father’s killer. (20 words)
(D) A teenage detective with a sleeping disorder turns his curse into a strength to track down his father’s killer and discovers he is his family’s biggest secret. (28 words)
As you can see, they build from simplest to most complex. In working on developing the best storyline I could, I initially came up with the (C) and (D) versions and simply worked backward to get the (A) and (B) versions.
So, my question: Which is best? (A) is simplest and meets all the right criteria but is also so bland as to be a non-starter. Or does “less is more” still apply? Is there a minimum word count? I can add some intriguing details to make it unique with both (B) and (C) and still be under the 25 word mark. Then there’s my whopper (D) which includes a hint at the outcome but is over the word limit.
I’ve tried to meet all the criteria for these things that you’ve mentioned, all from Rachelle Gardner’s blog, and more. Personally, I lean toward (C) to pack in the most punch while still meeting the word limit. But what do you and your readers think?
Randy sez: Agent Rachelle Gardner recently ran a contest on her Rants and Ramblings blog for one-sentence storylines and got quite a large number of entries. If you don’t follow Rachelle, you really should. She’s consistently one of the top bloggers in the Books category on Technorati, and she quite often has the #1 position on that list. I read Rachelle’s blog every day.
The problem with (D) is that it gives away too much of the ending. The one-sentence storyline should give away nothing that happens beyond the first-quarter of the book. The reason is simple: Your one-sentence storyline is a selling tool. It raises a “Story Question” which your novel is meant to answer. If you tell anything about the answer, then you have hobbled your Story Question. The Story Question is this: “Will this teenage detective find his father’s killer?”
In fact, if you look at all four options, (A) through (D), they all answer the Story Question, because they all say explicitly that he tracks down his father’s killer. That’s the main problem I’m seeing here.
An immediate way to improve (A) would therefore be to focus on the teen’s desire to track down the killer, not on his success in doing so: “A teenage detective vows to track down his father’s killer.”
Now the Story Question is clear: Will he or won’t he?
However, as Daniel noted, this is fairly bland. I’ll use a variant of the same question I asked yesterday, on both halves of the sentence:
- How is this teenage detective different from all other teenage detectives?
- How is this killer different from all other killers?
The answers to these questions add uniqueness to your hero or your villain and makes the story far more intriguing.
For example, in Mark Haddon’s brilliant novel, THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, there is a teenage detective who has Asperger’s syndrome. So a one-sentence summary of this book might be, “An autistic teenage detective vows to find the murderer of his neighbor’s dog.”
Notice that this focuses on the uniqueness of the hero and it has a twist at the end: the victim of the murder is a dog. Most people wouldn’t care much about a dog nor label it a murder, but this detective is different — he is autistic, and it makes sense that he’ll see the death of a dog differently than most people. He, in fact, sees the entire world differently and that’s what makes this novel special.
You might focus instead on the killer. What’s special about him? What’s unique? We might try something like this:
“A teenage detective vows to track down the last surviving member of the Nazi High Command — the man who murdered his father.”
The last surviving member of the Nazi High Command is by definition unique. That heightens the appeal for the novel because the man is a villain on a global scale. But by making him the murderer of our hero’s father, that adds a personal hook that makes it plausible that this hero will not quit, ever.
Of course, this Nazi bad guy, if he exists, would be close to 100 years old. A book like this would have worked better in the 1970s or 1980s, so it would be more plausible to bring this villain forward a few years.
In (B), (C), and (D), Daniel brings in the teen’s sleeping disorder, but in my view, this needs more oomph. (“Oomph” is a technical term which means . . . um, “oomph.”)
The problem is that in (B) there’s no connection between a sleeping disorder and the main quest. It isn’t clear how it could help or hurt the teen’s pursuit of justice.
In (C) and (D), we’re told that the sleeping disorder somehow helps pursue the killer, but since we have no clear indication of how this could possibly happen, it makes the storylines less plausible without making them more interesting. To make these work, we need some sort of explanation.
Daniel has several options:
- Make the hero unique or more clearly specified.
- Make the villain unique or more clearly specified.
- Explain how a sleep disorder can be an advantage.
- Do something else that brings the story to life.
We’ve already covered Doors #1, #2, and #3. But what about that mysterious Door #4? That’s fertile ground, but we don’t have enough information about Daniel’s story to know what’s happening that could spice up the storyline. Daniel hints that he has some things that could do it, and I think those might be just the ticket.
To answer the final unanswered questions Daniel asked: Yes, less is more in a storyline. No, there is no minimum word count.
For example, I can give you an Xtremely short storyline for my friend Tosca Lee’s next book. Here it is, in just one word: “Judas.”
Tosca’s book is titled ISCARIOT, and it’s the story of Judas Iscariot. If you’re a fan of Tosca’s writing, as I am, that’s really all you need to know. (Because I have a lot of expertise in the time and place that Tosca’s writing about, she and I have talked about her story a lot. Tosca is a research fiend like I am, so I’ve pointed her to my favorite research sources and have given her my best understanding of the political state of first-century Judea and Galilee.)
The reason a one-word storyline works for Tosca’s book is that she’s a character-oriented writer and her lead character is uniquely specified by his first name.
Bottom line: We don’t have enough information about Daniel’s story to perfect his storyline. But he does. I hope he’ll find inspiration to make it better and that he’ll post his improved version here as a comment.
Any thoughts from my Loyal Blog Readers? I’m sure you all know by now that I’m not always right in these judgment calls. But I’ve given my opinion. Anyone else got one? Post it here as a comment.
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.