Single-Sentence Summary – Character + Goal + Obstacle

Welcome back, class! Feel free to invite your writer friends to join us. There’s room enough for all!

If you missed the first lesson or would like to review it, you can read it here.


character-goal-obstacle-1Sometimes also called a one-sentence summary, a tagline, or a log line (when you’re discussing movies), the single-sentence summary is your novel boiled down to its most basic form.

One character with one challenge facing one obstacle.

You might also think of it like an equation. Character + Goal + Obstacle = Single-Sentence Summary.

interesting-character-irresistible-goal-immovable-obsctacleThe 3 Parts of the Single-Sentence Summary Equation

The character is usually the lead character. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t. I’ll go so far as to suggest that if the character in your single-sentence summary isn’t your lead character, your novel is about the wrong character.

Don’t use a name in a single-sentence summary. Names don’t tell people anything about the character.

Instead, look for your character’s most unique attribute; something that sets them apart. It could be a physical trait (height, weight, hair color, disability, three eyes, etc.), an emotional trait (fear, shyness, narcissism, etc.), or a mental trait. It could be the type of work they do or a hobby or special skill.

Or it could be an unusual combination of two or more of those categories. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:

  • A time traveling history professor
  • An autistic geneticist
  • A feline private detective

Whatever it is, it should be interesting enough that if all the potential reader knows is the character, they want to learn more.

This is something your character really wants. He or she wants this thing badly enough to leave their normal life and step into the story. Here are some samples to get you started.

  • Frodo wanted to get the One Ring out of the Shire (Lord of the Rings)
  • Captain Rogers wanted to contribute to the war effort (Captain America)
  • Philip Marlow wanted to find out who was blackmailing General Sternwood (The Big Sleep)
  • Dorothy wanted to get back home. (Wizard of Oz)

The goal can arise from your character’s basic personality, their work, their family situation, or a long-term dream. We tend to think of goals as something big and adventurous, but it doesn’t have to be. All it really needs to be is very important to the character. Important enough to go to any lengths to attain, achieve, or protect.

mountain-climbersThe goal is something your character wants. The obstacle is the reason he can’t get it.

This is the thing that keeps the character from attaining, achieving or protecting their Most Important Thing. Your lead character should face multiple obstacles ranging from minor to major. The obstacle you chose for the single-sentence summary should be the biggest possible obstacle.

The obstacles your character faces should arise naturally out of the character himself or out of the goal.

Obstacles that arise from the character are the sorts of obstacles that are personal to that character. For example, if your character is unusually short, there will be things that are difficult for your character that would be no problem for a taller person.

Obstacles that arise from the goal will also be particular to whatever goal you’ve given your character. The obstacles facing a character who wants a promotion might include the other people who want that promotion, the qualifications of the promotion, and possible relocation.

An obstacle doesn’t need to be life-threatening to be an obstacle. Not being able to reach something in a moment of need is an obstacle.

Not all obstacles need to be a combination of both, but knowing how characters and goals sometimes create their own obstacles will help you find the best fit for your single-sentence summary.

Just A Simple Hamburger

hamburgerLet’s take a juicy hamburger. I have a lead character who loves hamburgers. Let’s call him Joe. Joe MUST have at least one hamburger every week or the week isn’t complete.

That doesn’t sound like much of a goal, does it? Maybe it isn’t—for most of us. But give Joe the attitude that he MUST have his weekly hamburger and add a never-say-die willingness to do anything to get that burger and you may be onto something.

Remember, an obstacle doesn’t need to be life-threatening to be an obstacle. Not being able to reach something in a moment of need is an obstacle.

In Joe’s life, no week is complete without a hamburger. He simply must have one. For our purposes, that is his goal.

Now let’s say it’s Saturday night. Unforeseen circumstances have kept Joe from getting a burger all week. The delays have been unavoidable, but that’s okay. There’s always Saturday. In fact, every time something comes up, Joe tells himself, “There’s always Saturday.”

Saturday comes. It’s pouring down rain. That might keep a lot of people indoors, but Joe is, well, Joe is Joe and he must have his weekly hamburger, so out he goes.

Then things get worse. The skies grow so dark, the street lights come on. Rain drives down. Lightning flashes. Thunder rolls. Wind gusts. Trees twist in the wind like hula dancers. A limb breaks off and falls right behind Joe as he presses on toward Bart’s Burger Barn. That was a close call.

But time’s a wastin’ and Joe must have that burger.

Within three blocks of Bart’s, sirens begin to wail. They’re barely audible over the storm. They continue in an unbroken blast. No police or fire sirens, these. These are tornado warning sirens. This is serious.

Joe stops and squints through the rain. Down the road, maybe a mile away, he sees that worst of all sights. A tornado. Big and black and vicious.

And coming his way.

He looks a little to the left and sees, three blocks away, the warm, yellow lighted “Bart’s Burger Barn” sign.

What to do, what to do….

Maybe no one in their right mind would have any difficulty making the decision that faces Joe (Bart’s Burger Barn or the nearest tornado shelter?).

But that’s not the point.

The point is that your primary obstacle is what stands between the lead character and the goal.

For Joe, the tornado is the primary obstacle to getting the weekly burger.

Writing a Single-Sentence Summary

You have all the basic tools for writing a single-sentence, now. You know the three parts (character, goal, and obstacle). I’ve also provided a short story set up. What might a single-sentence summary be for Joe and his craving?

Here’s the way I begin developing a single-sentence summary.

Remember our equation? Character + goal + obstacle = single-sentence summary. Just replace each of those three parts with the things you know about Joe and his quest.

Character: Joe

Goal: Hamburger

Obstacle: Take your pick!

A burger-a-holic sets out to get his fix for the week when a tornado strikes.

Granted, that’s not a very exciting sentence, but it can always be improved.

Your Assignment

This week’s assignment is in two parts. You can do one or the other or both. You’re welcome to post your answers.

1: Write a single-sentence summary for Joe and his hamburger quest. Use the information in the short story to fill in each of the parts. Make it as interesting as you can. And make sure to post your ideas in the comment section below!

2: What’s your favorite movie or novel? Who was the main character? What was his or her goal? What was the primary obstacle?

Write a single-sentence summary based on your answers to the previous questions.

Leave your answers in the comment section below. If you do, please take a moment to comment on a few of the other assignments, as well.

Then make sure to join us next week, when we’ll talk about painting a word picture with your single-sentence summary.

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