The single sentence summary is that one sentence that describes the crux of your story. An easy to remember, easy to speak line that describes the character, the goal, and the obstacle.
It helps you determine who is interested in more information and who is not without boring everyone (yourself included).
- Be short and to the point
- Describe a unique character
- Describe a goal or challenge
- Describe an obstacle
In other words, it should describe an interesting character without telling who that character is (no names, please). It should tell what that character wants to accomplish and it should tell why that thing can’t be accomplished.
Time to get to work.
Today’s Single Sentence Summary
Let’s start with this single sentence summary of a potential story. Full disclosure: This is one of mine. It will be our subject for this portion of the clinic.
A history professor’s research uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.
This isn’t the first version of the single sentence summary, but it is an early version.
How does it stack up?
Short and To the Point: Check. It’s thirteen words long so it’s short.
It also gets to the point fairly well, so check that too.
Describe a Unique Character: Hmm. History professor…. How unique is that?
Not all of us are professors and not all of us who are professors teach history. In fact, I dare say history is a bit out of favor these days, so maybe this character is more unique than I think.
Describe a Goal or Challenge: The challenge in this sentence is … what? Research. Maybe not very unique, but still a goal and a challenge. Check.
Establish the Stakes: Murder is excellent as a threat. It implies all kinds of things to all kinds of people. And we all know that where there is one murder uncovered, there are likely to be other murders. That increases the stakes for our intrepid professor.
Overall, this single sentence summary sounds pretty good and rolls off the tongue fairly well. Read it out loud and see what you think.
It’s definitely sufficient to serve as a guardrail for writing this novel, which is one of the purposes we talked about yesterday.
But can it be better?
I’m of the firm opinion that nothing is ever perfect, which means there’s always room for improvement.
How can it be improved?
Because this sentence is short and to the point and because the stakes have been well established, we’ll focus on the two remaining elements – a unique character and the goal.
Describe a Unique Character: We’ve already established that a history professor might be unique. The question I ask myself now is this: Is that enough?
If it’s not, how might I make the professor a little more interesting? A few thoughts spring immediately to mind.
- The history professor is a time traveler doing ‘real time’ research
- The history professor is a protégé trying to prove himself
- The history professor is elderly and trying to hang onto his position
- The history professor has been accused of a crime (dare we suggest … the first murder?) and wants to find the real killer
If you are still writing or are planning, then this is the time to brainstorm! Everything goes.
If you’ve already written your novel, you know how your character is unique and you should use the most unique characteristic in the single sentence summary. Your task is to find the most interesting characteristic and the most interesting way to describe it.
Describe a Goal or Challenge: Maybe the character isn’t unique, but the goal or challenge is.
For example, my professor is doing research. That’s not very unique. All kinds of people do research and for all kinds of reasons.
But what if the professor is researching ways to defraud the university of money?
What if he’s researching family history, trying to figure out what happened to Aunt Em and why Uncle Merle hasn’t said a word since her death or disappearance?
If the character isn’t especially unique, then make sure that whatever he or she is doing IS unique. There needs to be something different – something special – to draw potential readers in. Something that makes the story worth reading.
Finding the Right Combination
So which of the options listed above fit this story and character best?
I enjoy good science fiction and I’m intrigued by the idea of a time traveling professor going back in history to conduct research, but I have a good sense of what the story is about and it’s not time travel.
Instead, it is going to be a murder mystery, so what are the best options for making the professor more interesting?
Obviously, the last option – the professor is researching a crime to find a killer – will work best for the genre and story.
But I wonder if the most interesting aspect of the character might be something else. I know, for example, that he’s afraid of heights. Deathly afraid of heights. Pass-out-and-fall-over afraid.
So let’s try this:
A history professor who is afraid of heights uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.
Okay. That’s more interesting than your basic history professor. A fear of heights could add interest to the plot.
Now let’s look at the goal and obstacle combination.
My professor is doing very specific research. He’s a writer of nonfiction books on history with a focus on American history. His current project is railroads, and research has led him to a defunct railroad in the Appalachian Mountains.
Does this suggest anything to anyone?
A person afraid of heights researching a railroad built through the Appalachians? Hmmm.
The automatic conflict of this sort of situation is immediately appealing.
A history professor who is afraid of heights researches a defunct Appalachian Mountain railroad.
Better, but still not quite there.
Notice an element of the original sentence has disappeared. The most interesting element, no less. Murder and the threat of murder. That needs to be put back in.
Because it’s also the most significant element of the summary, it should go at the end. This is called back-loading. End the sentence with the thing that creates the best hook. In this case, murder most foul.
The New & Improved Version
A history professor who is afraid of heights researches a defunct railroad in the Appalachian Mountains and uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.
I like it! It’s longer and a bit more complex than the sentence we started with, but all the elements are there. There’s enough information to intrigue most mystery fans and a lot of others, without presenting too much information.
What’s more, it’s 25 words long; the maximum length of a good single sentence summary.
What do you think? How would you improve my single sentence summary? Leave your comments and suggestions in the comment box below and let the discussion begin!
I’m in the process of writing a book on developing a sparkling single sentence summary. The working title is Boiling Your Novel Down to 25 Words or Less. I’m looking for real-life samples to include in the book and I need your help. If you would like to have your novel considered, please leave a comment in the comment box below. Include your lead character, his or her goal for the story and the obstacle that keeps him or her from reaching the goal easily. Also include a brief summary of the story and your contact email and I’ll get back to you. If you story is chosen for the book, you’ll receive a free copy of the eBook when the book is released.