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.

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The Aftertaste of Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoys-complaintWhy do we rate some books as classics, while many other books remain labeled in our minds as ‘just another great novel’? To me, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example illustrating the answer to this question.

When I opened Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time, I could feel its Jewish-American scent from the very first lines. It felt like being physically present in that community and knowing the protagonist and his family in person. The images drawn by Philip Roth were so vivid that I was disgusted by the feeling of presence in their bathroom when I came across the descriptions of various physiological acts performed there by the protagonist. Some scenes disturbed me: they reminded me of other similar families which I used to know. The first pages caused some unpleasant aftertaste, so I had to close the book for a while and let my disgust calm down.

However, the book did not let me go, I started thinking about it. Surprisingly, the scenes that had caused my disgust in the beginning, slowly floated away with time, and then the main character — the self-antagonistic protagonist with painfully inflamed, guilt-infested mind, captured my imagination. The few first pages of the book left such a strong aftertaste that I had no other choice, but to open the book again and read it to the end.

To be honest, this guy–the protagonist–still disgusts me: this obtrusive Jewish bore keeps making me think about his problems… against my will! No, I am not going to discuss his mental and emotional health here… not in this post, but isn’t it amazing how the protagonist has all the qualities of an antagonist, and in fact, in this book, he is both! Two in one!

What attracts my attention is the fact that Philip Roth’s novel has captured my imagination so much that, weeks after reading it, I still return to it in my mind, thinking about its characters as if they are real people living next door.

I am certainly not the first one to develop this aftertaste from the novel. The book has  been sensationally popular; millions of people have read it since the day it was published. As Bernard Avishai wrote in his article for Huffington Post,

“By 1975, six years after the book’s publication, Portnoy’s Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues.”

The reviews of the book are countless, too. And quite controversial. Some rate the book as absolutely excellent, others are openly negative, but nearly no one evaluates the book as average.

The novel touches every reader in a unique way, no matter what kind of emotions it evokes, because Portnoy’s Complaint is–

“…a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.” NYTimes review

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Novel Chapters of the Size of Tweets?

Whenever I come across an attractive piece of reading, my first thought is: Why don’t I check out the Internet for some quotes from the book first? If I like the quotes, I can devote a few minutes to reading about the book and its author, and only then I would take the book and start reading it. shrinking-1

In the new millemium, this tendency has grown into a common pattern for many of us, because our time is too precious and the abundance of books which are marketed as bestsellers is so mindblowing that we simply cannot afford to ‘read everything we can get our hands on’, as many readers use to say about their childhood habits.

This change is going to influence the writers’ work, too. Today, the life of an author is such that in order to conquer readers’ attention, one has to compress every thought to the size of a tweet. I won’t be surprised if I see a bestseller with chapters of the size of tweets some day. This is the specificity of our time, and authors will have to adjust to it.

Our available reading time is shrinking, so do the lengths of fiction and non-fiction works. This is the thought that I wanted to share here, so I will wrap up the post, hoping that somebody will read it to the end.

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Romantic Mystery: A Man in the Knitted Scarf

At dawn, when the first beams of the April sun gilded the porch of the house and started crawling along the lawn toward the old apple tree, the door of the house opened with a creak and released a man of indefinite age, wearing sunglasses, a gray denim jacket and a nifty knitted scarf. The man fastened up his jacket and hurried out of the yard.

Having reached the mailbox, the man paused to study the sign. It said:

#12, Sara Bonk. Writer.

The man smirked. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and drew on it with a sigh of relief. Then, he threw the used match on the ground, and said quietly to himself, as he walked away:

“For sure, the book was better.”

Since then, the man in the knitted scarf has never been seen in the neighborhood.

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A Checklist for Your Query Letter

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I sincerely enjoy reading every piece of advice posted by Carly Watters (a literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency), especially her tips on writing query letters. I like her ability to put the most valuable information together in a short, easy to comprehend and remember manner. I came across this little checklist on Carly’s blog and found it really helpful in work on my query letters:

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU QUERY IS ACTUALLY A QUERY?

  • Does it read like back cover copy?  (1)

  • Does it refrain from giving away the ending unless it’s absolutely necessary? (2)

  • Is it three paragraphs long? (Intro, Pitch, Author bio.)  (3)

  • Does it focus on why your book is different?  (4)

  • Does it directly or indirectly touch on all of these things: character, their growth, their stakes, and their motivation?  (5)

There is practically nothing to add to this. You write your query, check it for compliance to these five items, and you may rest assured that the query is sufficiently good. Certainly, there is no end to making improvements to every query, but this checklist helps you create a good structure for your document, and then you only need to add some flavor to it.

The only thing I would rather add to this list is one more question, which is not directly related to the book which is being pitched, bu to the personality of the author. In my opinion, the question (6) should be–

  • Does my query look like a business letter or not?  (6)

I would add this item because it seems to me that many authors fail to demonstrate their committment to having long term business relationship with their potential agent. I don’t know if I am right or nit here, but I have read hundreds of sample queries and tried to imagine myself being an agent. Suppose, an agent liked an author’s idea and is considering giving this novel a try. What would the agent’s major concern be at this point? I think it will be the fact that they are not acquainted and the agent has no idea what kind of person the author is.

As far as I understand, the author/agent work involves lots of interaction on person-to-person level, as well as lots of negotiation, counseling, learning from each other, and following multiple rules, conditions, and time limitations. All this is only possible when the two people are compatible and when both understans the business nature of this relationship. This is why I find this item important: the business-like style of the query can tell a lot to the agent about the author and thus, it can influence the agent’s final decision about working with an author or rejecting him/her.

 

Building Tension in a Story

Suspense Wilde quote

In her recent article Plot Devices that Work, Myra Fiacco suggests two winning techniques that help create anticipation in a story: ‘the clock’ (which is really popular among authors) and the so-called ‘the other shoe’, or “the point in a story when one or more of your characters has a moment of realization, revealing the missing piece of a puzzle that ties the story together.”

Making these two techniques work in a story is not so easy; it certainly takes working on every scene again and again after the first draft has been finished. I am not surprised that writing every novel takes brilliant authors like Donna Tartt nearly a decade; I am sure such authors rewrite their works hundreds of times before they can feel satisfied… So, what are other writing techniques to create and keep tension in a novel?

I have been thinking about these:

The increasing feeling of time pressure. If my character has a goal that must be reached really soon, plus some circumstances will keep breaking in and making the charcter hurry even more, then the reader will probably be more satisfied by the pace of the story.

The tension should come from all sides. If the pressure us high, plus more and more troubling signs of impending danger are revealed to the main character, this may also help a lot. But in this case, the author should not forget about balancing tension with the other elements of the plot. Too many elements of tension in a story may turn the book into a real rollercoaster for the reader.

I like it when the protagonist is a thinking preson, who keeps asking questions and trying to find answers to them. The questions should arise from internal and external conflicts of the story, and it is very important to reveal every answer for the reader before you write ‘the end’ phrase.

The chrescendo technique is a method of keeping the reader interested by gradually increasing emotional tention in the story, and it says: avoid too many sudden jerks in the plot. As a reader, I don’t care for the plots where every plot point comes a real catastrophy: this makes me emotionally tired of the book.

Well, I am sure there are more ‘tricks’ to develop tension in a story; here are just a few articles I read recently on the topic. I hope they might help you answer your questions just like they helped me:

How to Build Tension to Heighten the Stakes by Jessica Page Morrell;

Seven Tension Building Tips for Writing Action Scenes by Joan C. Curtis

How to Create Dramatic Content by Sean D’Souza

Here is some infographics from nownovel.com blog:

Infographic-how-to-create-tension-in-stories

 

 

 

Companions in Misfortune

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(micro-fiction, one minute read)

Jim was thoughtful and silent all evening. He left his laptop unpacked in the hall, missed his favorite program on television, never changed into his favorite home suit, and — what was the most upsetting, of course — did not even come up to the fridge!

Smokey watched him with growing concern. Two times he approached Jim’s leg, rubbed against it and meowed, then he tried to climb up on Jim’s lap, but his friend remained  unresponsive.

Then he spoke on the phone.

Having finished the talk, Jim sat down on the couch and buried his face in his hands.

“She just gave birth to a triplet,” he said though his fingers to no one in particular.

Smokey came up and sat near Jim. He wanted to help. He wished he could share his point, but all he could do was rub his head against Jim’s elbow and pur, which meant:

“Come on, pal, don’t panic. I’ve been there. Some day you’ll give them away!”

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On The Immaculate Conception

(micro-fiction, one minute read)

The reason of your daughter’s sickness is simple,” said the doctor and threw a short glance at the older of the two women sitting in front of him. “Your daughter is pregnant.”

There was a moment of silence.

But how is it possible?!” The mother exclaimed. “My daughter has never been with a man! Darling,” she turned to her girl, “have you ever…?”

No, Mother,” the girl protested, “I never did anything of the kind! I never even kissed anybody!”

The doctor stood up and slowly walked to the window. There, he stopped without saying a word and froze facing the morning sun.

The two women also sat in silence for a while, looking at the doctor’s back, fidgeting impatiently in their chairs. Finally, the mother broke the silence:

Erm.., Doctor! What are you doing there at the window?”

I am waiting,” the doctor replied. “You see, in a case like yours, we should be seeing a bright star rising in the East and three wise men descending from the hill…

On Immaculate Conception

On Structuring Public Speeches

sav_angel

(micro fiction, one minute read)

When the world was new, Savior Angel shared universal wisdom with people.

Whatever happens,” he said, “do not forget the ultimate rule of life: while young, share energy; in the age of maturity, share beauty; when old and gray share wisdom, and always– are you listening? Always share–”

Alas! People were not listening. They were too busy exploring their awesome new world.

Years flew by. Time ran away so quickly that people had no chance to enjoy it. One after another, they grew old and died, until only one woman remained alive. She was weak. Apparently, she was dying, too. Savior Angel came down to share some wisdom with her.

You, people, could survive,” he said, “if you had listened to my words about sharing love. You should have shared love. All of you. At all times.”

But the woman died before he finished talking.

Uh-huh. Now, I need a new world and new people– again!” Sighed the angel. “I guess, I should open my speech with the words about love; this will at least induce them to reproduce!”

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Arming teachers. What’s next? Arming kids?

(flash fiction, one minute read)

Walking about the school unarmed was not only humiliating, but quite scary. Jodie paused at a turn of a corridor, pulled down the visor, and checked her garments: the bulletproof vest beneath her uniform was quite bulky, but since it was a new rule, she had to wear it at all times. The most hateful, of course, was the helmet: every now and then, its buckle would pinch Jodie’s skin right under the chin, making her eyes moist with tears of anger.

A door in the end of the corridor creaked, the Principal came into sight. He trotted toward the Teachers Room, the flamethrower at the ready. The door clicked locked behind him and the school became silent again.

The feeling of danger made Jodie’s heart beat like a drum. Aww, how stupid it was of her to blab that she’d like to see swings in the school yard instead of that anti-terrorist bunker! Now, she was punished with having to go everywhere unarmed for two weeks!

She felt lonely and scared, and her staggering milk tooth disturbed her like hell. I’m not ready for school yet, she thought. I wonder, could I return to the kindergarten? Hmm… Need to ask Mom about this when I’m home.

Teachers-with-guns-chicagonow-com

Teachers with guns, picture from chicagonow.com

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