Quick, take a guess: Where is the most unlikely spot on earth? And what might this have to do with writing fiction? My own answer to the first question is, “I have no idea.” My answer to the second question will take a bit of unpacking.
Chris posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I started by story using your snowflake method, and love your critiques of one-sentence storylines. Don’t know if you get fed up with them, but here’s mine just to push you almost (but not quite) to the edge:
A confrontation-shy ex-cop battles plots and doublecrosses to save crash survivors marooned in the most unlikley spot on earth.
I’ve gone thru maybe 30-40 different variants as I try to hone in on the crux of my story. This is my best so far. How can it be improved? What do your readers think?
I’m trying to emphasize the unique hero at the start and mysteriousness (of the crash site) at the end.
My protagonist is a korean-american raised in Texas (so he has a drawl, of all things). My villain is an English ex-soldier and newbie member of parliament who’s an accomplished bully like the hero’s (hated but rich) father. You can probably guess where the extra fuel comes from in their conflict.
Randy sez: This is a promising storyline, like the one we analyzed in my last blog post. And like that one, this can be improved by making things a bit more specific.
First, let’s start with that “most unlikely spot on earth.” I can think of plenty of places that are unlikely for a plane crash. The South Pole. The peak of Mount Everest. The Bikini Atoll. My back yard. (I’m hoping a plane crash in my back yard is unlikely, because flying airplane parts can play havoc with a greenhouse.)
This sentence would grow dramatically in power, Chris, if you were to specify exactly where it is. Don’t TELL us that it’s the most unlikely spot on earth. Show us and we’ll figure it out.
This seems to be a general rule to apply to those pesky one-sentence storylines. Whenever you find yourself writing “most” or “best” or “biggest” or any other superlative, ask yourself whether you might be telling something that you could be showing. If so, then show it and see if that makes it stronger.
The second point where I see room for improvement is in the “plots and double-crosses” that our ex-cop hero is facing. In a thriller, you expect to see plenty of plots and double-crosses of all sorts. Those are generic words that don’t really get the blood pumping because they’re generic.
Instead of using the words “plots and double-crosses,” Chris, I’d recommend that you show us ONE of those. Maybe our hero’s girlfriend is secretly on the villain’s side. Maybe whoever pays his expenses cuts him off while he’s in Ulan Bator with no cash. There are any number of ways to be double-crossed. Pick one and sketch it for us in a few words.
Which one? That’s easy. Pick the big one that happens at roughly the one-quarter mark in the book. It should be the one that will pretty much define the conflict for a big chunk of the book.
That’s another general feature of many one-sentence summaries. If you show how your main character gets into serious trouble that will last for a major part of the book, then you really define the conflict. And conflict is essential to your story.
One thing that’s working nicely here is the description of your lead character as a “confrontation-shy ex-cop.” It’s always possible that you could improve this slightly, but it’s strong enough to work with.
The other thing that’s working well here is that our hero is working to save those crash survivors. You don’t have to tell us to root for him. We know that automatically. (Another lesson that has been known for a very long time: Fiction is moral. Readers instinctively root for the good guy. It’s a very rare story where we find ourselves, against our will, rooting for the bad guy.)
Well, Chris, take that and run with it. I’m betting you can sharpen your storyline substantially by adding in a couple of specifics.
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.
Blog Post of the Day: I regularly read a boatload of blogs. One that made me laugh today was this one by Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. The title of the post was “Put The Big Rocks In First.” That’s good advice, and you’ll see an unforgettable demonstration of what that means in a video clip where Stephen Covey asks an assistant to try to put the little rocks in first. Have fun!
Christophe Desmecht says
I plan on putting up a big poster right above my desk, saying: “Show, don’t tell!”
It’s (for me anyway) probably the easiest thing you forget when writing.
David Flamm says
I too am having a heck of a time with my description sentence. I have probably 40 variants and am still trying to find ways to describe who the character is, what the conflict is, what the major theme is, and keep it around 15-20 words. I agree however with the above post… show, don’t tell! That’s what I’m really trying to do. This truly is an art. I wish you luck friend!