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WIP One-Sentence Summary

I found Rachelle Gardner’s recent One-Sentence Summary Contest rather fascinating. Developing a provocative snippet (emphasis on provocative AND snippet) of your story is par for the course nowadays. So why do so many aspiring novelists have such a hard time with this exercise?

Could it be they don’t really know their story that well? Or maybe there is no compelling storyline.

Anyway, Rachelle gave some great pointers about how to boil down your storyline into “a simple statement that can be quickly conveyed and understood, [that] generates interest in the book.”

In 25 words.

Out of the 500-plus entries, the one-sentence summary for my current WIP managed an Honorable Mention. Woot, woot! Here it is:

A disfigured modern-day prophet must overcome his own despair in time to seal one of the seven mythical gates of hell.

Whaddya think? Of course there’s more to my story than a prophet and the gates of hell. There’s a roadside attraction, a llama ranch, a faith healer, and a whiskey drinking shaman who quotes Oscar Wilde. Hey, all I needed to do was provoke interest. So did I?

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Jay June 11, 2010, 10:08 AM

    I noticed yours got a mention. Congrats again!

    Mine didn’t make the cut. I think part of the problem is that my book is 95% character driven. There is a plot, but a majority of the content is inside the protagonists head — it doesn’t do to write a summary that says, “Uh…she thinks about life and stuff.”

    The books it kind of follows after (Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar) I think would yield boring one-sentencers.

    Are first-person, character-based novels not interesting or in demand anymore?

  • xdpaul June 11, 2010, 11:06 AM

    Catcher in the Rye- An elite, disaffected youth dons a hunting cap to track, in the streets of New York, his prey: people.

    The Bell Jar – A young ex-student descends into madness following the trauma of electroshock therapy, and discovers a strange and treacherous path back to sanity.

    Yes, first person, character driven stuff is compelling, absolutely, but when condensing them for the purposes of this exercise, you still need to find the plot. I love character-driven stories (A Secret History, Wise Blood, etc.) but the “hook” for them was always the plot, even if it seems fairly basic in light of what the novel “really” is about.

    The difficulty in condensing the story for a hook, particularly with character-driven stories, is that the author is thinking “but the cool stuff is the characters, the relationships, the complexities” while the potential reader is thinking “so, what’s it about?” What they mean is “What happens?”

    The complexities and characters are the reward, the summary is the lure.

    Its weird alchemy, to be sure.

    And Mike, your hook is a complete blast: bring it on. That hook sells me more than the best title ever would. Titles help me categorize, this hook sells the book.

    I would only improve one thing – change it to:

    A disfigured modern-day prophet must overcome his own despair in time to seal one of the seven mythical gates of a llama ranch.

    • Jay June 11, 2010, 4:34 PM

      Color me idiotic. Mine was way over 25 words. I stole your “disaffected “adjective. It works perfectly for her.

      I pared it down a bit:
      “A disaffected, insomniac rock club owner copes with a rekindled grudge and the blossoming relationship with her new boss.”


      “A disaffected, insomniac rock club owner copes with a rekindled grudge, the blossoming relationship with her new boss, and a deteriorating photograph.”

      I was kind of going for humor with the photograph bit, but I don’t think it works.

    • Rachelle June 12, 2010, 8:46 AM

      xdpaul – That was brilliant. I only wish I could have taught it so well and succinctly.

      • xdpaul June 14, 2010, 6:58 AM

        Rachelle – Thank you, but you clearly do teach it well. Anything I know about hooks, I learned from you, your student-readers or your authors.

        Jay – not idiotic at all – anyone whose any good at all has mangled a thousand of their own hooks before they get one right. Its easier to do it for someone else’s work (even natural – a hook is what you tell your friends to persuade them to go to the movie you want to go to instead of the dumb one they want) than it is for your own. Having said that, could I make one word-choice suggestion? Can you try another word other than “copes?” It might just be me, but I like stories about winners or losers – people with something dramatic at stake – and a verb to match it. Frodo Baggins “copes” well with the One Ring, where others did not, but the story hook is that he “struggles to destroy it.”

  • Mark June 11, 2010, 11:08 AM

    That sentence alone is compelling. And with the llama ranch, I can get two friends to read it, too, I bet.

  • Nicole June 11, 2010, 12:33 PM

    Good one, Mike. I found most of them to be . . . boring. Like totally not into what they were selling. No offense to anyone concerned. Mine would be boring to some/most, I’m sure. Yours is quite good, but I’d be far more enticed to read it with the extra information than with the mostly speculative one sentence. (However, you know I plan to read it. Without a doubt.)

  • Kat Heckenbach June 11, 2010, 12:58 PM

    I don’t think it’s necessarily that authors don’t know their stories, or that the storyline is not compelling. It’s that we know our stories too well sometimes–all the details, and the cool little subplots–and it’s hard to whittle all that away. I think it can be easier to write a one-line hook for someone else’s work because you’re not invested so deeply in the story as a whole.

    • Mike Duran June 11, 2010, 1:09 PM

      That’s a terrific point, Kat! I’ve found that this exercise helps me distinguish the CENTRAL STORY from the whole story. Which makes me wonder whether the author struggling with a one-sentence summary is actually struggling with their central story. Thanks for your comments!

  • Katie Ganshert June 11, 2010, 3:28 PM

    Good stuff! sounds interesting and concise!

  • Ane Mulligan June 12, 2010, 6:05 AM

    Mike, I love this one, but it could even be shorter. Why add disfigured to the blurb? The important part is he’s a modern day prophet. Some of the details can wait until the reader opens the book. 😉

    • Rachelle June 12, 2010, 8:49 AM

      Actually, I think the word “disfigured” adds interest to the pitch. It’s so much different than just saying “a prophet,” don’t you think? Like I tried to convey in my post, non-specificity is one of the things that makes one-sentence pitches boring. A word like “disfigured” brings some uniqueness to the pitch, making me wonder how the prophet is disfigured and why it matters to the story. Bottom line – keeping the pitch short is important, but it’s not the only important thing. Sometimes it works to add a word or two that bring it from “ho hum” to intriguing. Just my humble opinion.

  • Keli Gwyn June 12, 2010, 11:14 AM

    Congrats on your honorable mention, Mike!!

    I think your one-sentence summary is quite catchy. I like the word “disfigured” in it because it sets up a number of questions in my mind. How is he disfigured? How did become disfigured? How does this affect him as a person and as a prophet? How does his disfigurement play into the story?

    The word “disfigured,” more than any other in your summary, piqued my interest. Coupled with “despair,” I foresee that this character has a number of issues he’s going to have to deal with in order to accomplish his goal of sealing the gate. Since I’m a fan of character-driven stories, I foresee an action story–one with a character who will grab me and pull me in.

  • A. J. Walker June 12, 2010, 11:31 AM

    Loved your one sentence summary. As others have said, makes me even more interested in reading your book upon release.

    I, however, missed the deadline to submit mine. It was like the cartoon Rachelle ran on her blog on June 3.

    Yup, those dinosaurs were me :S

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