Today, we’ll analyze the one-sentence summary of a novel submitted to me by one of my Loyal Blog Readers. Along the way, we’ll cover two important principles that make the difference between a storyline that sells and a storyline that doesn’t.
Jennifer posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
This is the one story line of my pending novel. Can you analyze it for me.
The investigation into the brutal murders of city officials threatens to bring the city to its knees.
Here is a longer version:
Amidst a heat wave of political corruption, scandal and local crime, homicide Detective Spalding must investigate the brutal murders of city officials that once solved threatens to bring the city to its knees.
Randy sez: The short version needs a bit more detail and the long version is too long. But together, there’s enough here for us to work with.
There is certainly an interesting story here. The first question is: Whose story is it? In the short version, the noun of the sentence is “the investigation.” This is fairly impersonal, but Jennifer instinctively knows this, because in the long version, she personalizes it around the lead investigator, homicide Detective Spalding.
A great storyline almost always focuses on a person. So our first improvement will be to put Detective Spalding into the short version in some way. Note that his name really doesn’t tell us much about him, so we won’t need his name. His job is far more useful to us. He’s a detective. This tells us right away that the novel is either a police procedural or very close to it. That’s a standard category in fiction.
But we need to do more. How is Detective Spalding different from all other detectives? Or more importantly, how is he different from all other people on the planet? If you can find a way to answer that question in no more than four words, then you’ve got a really powerful lead. Jennifer, even if you can’t define him that specifically, any details you can give us about Spalding that make us like him or make us curious about him will put you ahead of the game.
Now we’ve got a series of brutal murders, always a good thing in this category, so let’s look at the consequences of those murders. They aren’t just a series of random murders. They threaten, in some way, to bring the city to its knees. That’s good, but that’s also pretty vague.
Here is the second main improvement I would suggest: Give me enough details about the circumstances of these murders so that I’ll see for myself that the city might be brought to its knees. Don’t TELL me the city is at hazard. SHOW me the hazard and I’ll figure it out.
There are lots of ways to bring a city to its knees. We need some specifics here. Was the mayor murdered in bed with his girlfriend? Was the city attorney murdered with his personal safe open — revealing that he’s been embezzling the city funds? Was the chief of police whacked in the company of the local mafioso? Each of these might conceivably bring the city to its knees, but each would do so in a very different way. Get specific here — in ten words or less.
Jennifer, you’ve made a good start. Get more specific with your lead character and with the consequences of the murders and you’ll have a 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.
James Thayer says
Your comment about details is so important, whether in a pitch or in the final product, the novel. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction speaks of details as “proofs,” like those in a geometry theorem. The novelist, he says, “gives us such details about the streets, stores, weather, politics, and details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters, so that we cannot help believing that the story is true.”
Carrie L. Lewis says
I always look forward to these types of analytical posts. I love the snowflake method, but have persistent problems boiling concepts down to a one-sentence summary!
Kerry Meacham says
Randy – I read somewhere that having irony in a storyline is good if you can get it, i.e. a disgruntled/disgraced/recently fired detective must work to solve a mystery that could bring the city to it’s knees. That way he is defending the system that has shunned him. I’m not trying to rewrite this as much as I’m asking if you agree with the premise of using irony in a storyline. Thoughts?