Single Sentence Summary – Clinic 2

Welcome back to our February single sentence summary clinic. Thank you to everyone who participated in last week’s clinic, whether you ‘lurked’ or participated in the discussion.

A Recap

What is a single sentence summary and why is it important?

The single sentence summary is a sentence of 25 words or less (ideally) that describes the central character, what that character wants (goal), and why the character can’t have it (obstacle). It is sometimes called a tagline. With movies and TV, it’s referred to as a log line.

If you’ve already written your novel, the single sentence summary will be what you use to tell editors, agents, publishers, friends, family, and strangers what your story is about.

If you’re still in the writing process, the single sentence summary will be the guardrails that keep you on track in making writing decisions.

Today’s Single Sentence Summary

Today’s sample is another personal idea. A story in development.

An accountant in search of a new beginning finds old trouble.

How does it stack up?

Short and to the Point: This sentence has only eleven words, so it’s very short and very much to the point. Check!

Describe a Unique Character: Accountants are not only plentiful, but the popular perception is that they’re also as exciting as plain toast (not always an accurate perception, by the way). I’m thinking the first two words of this sentence would bore people to tears. That is NOT good.

Describe a Goal: What is the goal? A new beginning. What exactly does that mean in general? What does it mean to the character?

And why is the character looking for a new beginning?

It’s good to leave a potential reader asking questions. Questions are what prompt him or her to pick up the book and read it. But these vague questions aren’t what you want your reader to be asking at this point. Why? Because the most likely answer will be, “Why bother?”

Describe an Obstacle: The obstacle is about as clear as the goal: old trouble. That can mean any number of things to any number of people, so it sparks all kinds of imagery.

But in this case, it’s too general to be effective.

How can it be improved?

About the only thing I don’t have to work on is the length. Everything else is wide open for improvement. Let’s get busy.

Describe a Unique Character: A story without an interesting character is no story at all. How can I make this accountant more interesting?

  • He was fired from a previous job due to account irregularities
  • He was a con artist in a former life
  • He was formerly an IRS accountant
  • He used to work for the mob
  • He’s a space alien

Okay. That last one is a little bit “out there.” I included it just to point out that when you’re brainstorming, include everything that comes to mind.

Is there something we can use among the rest of those suggestions?

An accountant fired for account irregularities looks for a new beginning and finds old trouble.

That’s better. We have an idea of why the accountant is looking for a new beginning. We can also see that the reason he was fired is directly related to his professional life. It’s not much of a stretch to think that an accountant who was fired because of account irregularities might be on the brink of professional death. That’s a very good thing for a character to be facing.

How about this?

A former mob accountant looks for a new beginning and finds old trouble.

Or maybe,

A former IRS accountant looks for a new beginning and finds old trouble.

Each of these gives our accountant an air of mystery in different ways because each description suggests a different type of character and different obstacles.

If you really want to ratchet things up, how about this?

A former IRS accountant specializing in mob activity looks for a new beginning and finds old trouble.

Now that could get real interesting real fast!

The point is, if you don’t have a clear idea of your character, don’t rule anything out.

Describe a Goal or Challenge:  Now that we understand the character’s past, we have a better idea of why he wants a new beginning and what that might mean to him. The reader isn’t left to fill in all the blanks. Let’s leave this one alone for the moment and look at the obstacles to our hero’s quest.

Describe an Obstacle: What possible obstacles might face our character? I can think of a couple quite easily.

If our accountant was fired due to account irregularities, potential obstacles might be:

  • Someone at the new job finds out and tries to blackmail the accountant
  • The same kinds of problems crop up again, forcing the accountant to solve both problems or lose his professional life

If the accountant was an IRS accountant who worked against the mob (or even if he was a former mob accountant), one obvious obstacle to future happiness and success is the arrival of a mob hit man.

If you’re brainstorming ideas for a new story, it’s worth your time to consider obstacles for every possible character and/or goal combination you can come up with. The best ideas are rarely the first ideas, so don’t stop brainstorming too soon.

So what obstacles look good?

Personally, I like the idea of account irregularities costing my hero his job and forcing him into something he thinks is a backward step. In such a case, the ideal obstacle to his success is to have problems occur at the new job. A single sentence summary for that situation could be:

An accountant fired for account irregularities looks for a new beginning and uncovers familiar problems in the family business.

The New & Improved Version

I’m going to go with the last example shown above:

An accountant fired for account irregularities looks for a new beginning and uncovers familiar problems in the family business.

It’s 19 words long, which is well within the 25 word maximum length. The accountant comes with a sense of mystery (is he guilty of doctoring the books or not?) and he’s faced with an unpleasant obstacle in his search for future success (is a family member playing fast and loose with the family business?). There’s a ton of potential.

Is it perfect? No.

But the beauty of the single sentence summary is that it’s a work in progress. There are always ways to fine-tune and adjust it.

What do you think? What changes would you make?

Related Articles
What is a Single Sentence Summary?
Single Sentence Summary – Clinic 1
Single Sentence Summary – Clinic 3
Single Sentence Summary – Clinic 4

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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.

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