Writing a One-Sentence Novel Summary

Every author of fiction is familiar with the torture of putting together a one-sentence summary of every story they write: the sentence that serves a few purposes at a time. It is supposed to do a few things–

  • define the so-called “story question”;
  • help readers decide whether they want to read this book;
  • be the writer’s navigation tool that shows him/her the direction of writing;
  • become a very effective marketing tool, etc.

Writing a one-sentence description is always a big burden for the author, because every story contains numerous ideas, suggestions and messages, dozens of which can be precious for the readers, but the author must choose only one message: the one that will serve as a solid carcas supporting the whole structure of the future book.

Which message is it? How can the author identify it? What is the best way to put it together into that magical one-sentence statement? Many authors spend weeks trying to answer these questions, learning from each other, looking for a ‘universal’ algorithm, which would satisfy everyone: the author, the reader, and the publisher of the book.

The only constant in the book writing process is the triple alliance of the author, the reader, and the publisher. To understand what each party is expecting to see in our one-centence summary, it is necessary to look at their goals.

The author’s initial goal in writing a book is to impress a large number of people (what else can make a person voluntarily spend years of her life working like a dog without any guarantee of future rewards or benefits?) To impress a large number of people one needs to say something witty in that sentence: something new and revealing, something that others do not normally see the way the author can see it;

The reader’s goal is to obtain memorable experiences (emotional, intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, etc.) Obtaining memorable experiences is always associated with suffering (not physical, but emotional): every reader wants to experience a new level of it with every next book they take from a shelf, which means that our one-sentence statement must contain an emotionally disturbing idea or image; in other words, it should produce an effect of a needle prick.

The publisher’s goal is pragmatic: to hit the best possible sales and thus, to make the best possible profit, which means that the publisher is expecting to see a couple of amazingly precise and effective keywords which will capture the minds of millions.

Now, let us see what we can get from this. Summing up the above paragraphs, our magical one-sentence novel description must meet the three abovementionned basic conditions, which means that the author should make sure to include the following elements into the description:

one-sent-novel-summary-elements1

After we have given it a lot of thinking and put a few words opposite each of the three above items, we can move on to building the structure of our sentence. Again, how can we satisfy everyone who is going to read it?

Many publications on the topic suggest a variety of one-sentence summary structures which have worked well for the bestselling authors. We certainly cannot ignore them. Having studied a dozen of such publications, we can see that the proposed examples of one-sentence summaries usually have simple and easy to read structure, so that everyone could grasp all information contained in the sentence right away: literally, at a glance. Majority of sample one-sentence descriptions had the structures similar to this one:

one-sent-novel-summary-scheme1 I provided an example below the scheme, which illustrates the elements of the sentence structure. This example can also show us that the sample one-sentence description–

“In a care home for the elderly, a woman draws strength from a mysterious friendship in an attempt to recall past secrets and prove her sanity” (Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon review)

is not only built in accordance with the ‘Where-Who-How-What for’ scheme, but it also meets the three conditions which we discussed above:

(1) it contains a new, revealing look at a common, quite failiar and socially important topic (elderly woman draws strength… from friendship; … to prove her sanity);

(2) it is emotionally touching and grabs the reader’s attention right away (elderly woman;  friendship; prove sanity – these words produce expectation of a touching, possibly sentimental, maybe even dramatic, but definitely emotionally intense story);

(3) it has the ‘magical’ keywords, which immediately attract attention of the target audience (the words mysterious, secret draw our attention to the genre and style of writing: as we read them, we expect a great degree of suspense in the story; also, the phrases draws strength, an attempt to recall, and prove her sanity immediately evoke imagess of a dynamic and captivating plot, where the characters must take tremendous  efforts to achieve their goals).

As you can see, our ten-minute study of the ‘secrets’ of successful one-sentence summary writing has already revealed a lot of valuable information; I am sure we can get more if we study more examples of such summaries. I am going to continue my research and write another post about successful one-sentence novel summaries in this blog soon.

You are very welcome to paste your comments, suggestions and — maybe — your examples of one-sentence summaries below this post. Let us analyse them together.

writing01

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. garyseigel

     /  October 16, 2019

    Curious if this one-sentence summary works:

    A sixteen-year-old gay former child actor in 1966 faces challenges as he enters a new high school with virtually no ground rules for bullying.

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    • Thanks for sharing this, Garyseigel. I am not an expert, of course, but my thoughts are these: first, when I read this sentence I sensed that you have written at least a hundred similar sentences before you came up with this one: this means you’ve been trying to master your skill, and this is very good. My second thought was that reading the sentence was a bit difficult because it has too many “accents”. In my personal terminology, an “accent” is a kind of a keyword that creates general meaning (and mood) of a phrase/sentence — something that you definitely need to deliver to your reader. In this sentence there are too many accents: I would reduce the words characterizing your main character to 1-2 words that are critically important to building an image of this character in a reader’s mind. Instead of “sixteen-year-old gay former child actor” you might think of something like “a gay teenager” or whatever would be good to characterize your character with just one most important word (whether it is the fact that he/she is gay or that he/she has some acting background), etc. My third thought is this: when I read a one-sentence description of any bigger text, I try to create a still image illustrating it in my mind — like an image on a book cover — and your sentence gives me information for a whole collage of images, rather than one image. It is subjective, of course, but I’d rather see an image with fewer details. Four. It seems that the most emotional word in this sentence is “bullying”, because it immediately creates a well-known association with many examples of school bullying, especially with gay teenagers. So, I guess, the idea of the sentence is to say that Returning to school is no fun for a child actor; being gay only makes it worse, as he/she … (and here should come the main, most intriguing turn of your story, which is not included into the sentence, but I believe it should be. Something happened to the character when he/she started attending a new school (love? friendship? an episode that turned his/her life?) I think this intriguing moment should be mentioned in the sentence to make the reader want to open the book and read the whole novel. Well, these are my thoughts. Please, do not take it as criticism — those are just thoughts on the way — subjective and possibly not all correct; this is just my personal vision.

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librocubicularist | nonfiction | moonlights as the host of Silent Book Club Kota Kinabalu | writes on Scrivener

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