Welcome back to this month’s story clinic and our discussion of single sentence summaries. If you missed the first two lessons, not to worry. Each lesson is self-contained. You don’t need to read all of them.
But if you’d like to read them, previous lessons are still available.
Introduction: What is a Single Sentence Summary?
Now for today’s lesson.
Today’s Single Sentence Summary
This week, we’re looking at a reader submission, so the format will be a little bit different at the beginning. I was provided with a brief plot summary, so to set things up for today’s class, I’ll first present the summary as shared with me.
A Marine Corps reservist sets sail on an anniversary cruise with his wife, but ends up shipwrecked and bereaved on a wild, remote island in the Philippines, where he must protect the lives of three other survivors, unaware that one of them is responsible for his wife’s murder.
Remember what a single sentence summary is? A sentence of 25 words or less that presents an interesting character, the thing the character wants (goal), and the thing that keeps the character from getting the goal (obstacle).
The summary above is 48 words. It’s a pretty good summary and lays out the story very well, but it’s in that no man’s land between a single sentence summary and the one paragraph summary.
The writer also presented a first attempt at a single sentence summary. Here it is.
A shipwrecked/bereaved Marine Corps reservist protects three other survivors on a wild, remote island in the Philippines, unaware that one of them is responsible for his wife’s murder.
This functions much better as a single sentence summary, even though it’s three words over the maximum allowed word count. But let’s not worry about the word count first. That is usually the last thing you should work on. Figure out what you want to say first, then figure out the best way to say it.
How does it stack up?
Describe a Unique Character: I don’t know about you, but anything military is automatically of interest. It denotes certain things that don’t have to be spelled out. Add the branch (Marine) and my mental image of the character is further refined.
But the writer went ahead and added the emotional connection of bereavement and the peril of shipwreck. Those are pretty powerful reasons to be concerned about this character.
Describe a Goal: What is our Marine’s goal? The protection of himself and other survivors is the first goal. Given the challenge of bereavement and shipwreck, survival is a natural goal.
We also see that our survivors are stranded on an island in the Philippines. Can anyone say jungle?
This is one of those details that serves double duty in this single sentence summary. It’s part goal (surviving in the jungle) and part obstacle (all the risks that come with a jungle). It’s an ideal choice for a single sentence summary. Even if we didn’t know about the shipwreck or the bereavement, putting a Marine Corps reservist with other survivors on a jungle island is going to create curiosity in a lot of readers.
Describe an Obstacle: We have a Marine Corps reservist who wants to survive. What are the obstacles standing in his way?
I’ve already mentioned the setting. Setting can be an excellent obstacle to a variety of goals and it’s used very well here.
But keep reading. There is another obstacle – a big one – and we find it right where it should be, at the end of the sentence. The ‘m’ word – murder.
This is called back loading. It’s that little something extra that leaves a potential reader even more anxious to find out what happens.
In this case, the little something extra arrives with one of the survivors, who we’re told is responsible for the death of the Marine’s wife. And not only her death, but her murder.
An excellent way to raise the stakes.
Short and to the Point: This is where a lot of writers have difficulty. Whittling all that great information down into 25 words or less. As I mentioned before, now is the time to work on that, though. After you know all the other things that need to go into the single sentence summary.
This single sentence summary is only three words over the limit and I can see a few ways word count can be cut and the summary strengthened, so let’s take a look at those first.
How can it be improved?
Take a look at this revised sentence.
A bereaved Marine Corps reservist helps three shipwrecked survivors on a jungle island, unaware that one of them is responsible for his wife’s murder.
Do you see what happened?
The hero was described only as bereaved, eliminating one word.
The word ‘shipwrecked’ then became part of the goal description, which changed from “protects three other survivors” to “helps three shipwrecked survivors”. There is no change in word count, but placing the word “shipwrecked” later in the sentence gives it more impact without removing that important detail.
The biggest change is in the next phrase. “A wild, remote island in the Philippines” becomes simply, “a jungle island”. Four words are cut in this change alone. The location of the island is lost, but the more concise phrase packs a punch that telling where the island is located lacks.
The net result is that the single sentence summary is more tightly written and comes in under the maximum word count with 24 words.
One additional change was made in the following summary.
A bereaved Marine Corps reservist helps three women survive on a jungle island, unaware that one of them is responsible for his wife’s murder.
“Survivors” was changed to “women.”
Still 24 words in length and still a good short sentence summary. So why the change? According to the author, the change was made so that women readers will not think the story is a military story.
This is an important point. Just as you write your story according to what the audience for your genre expects, you should tailor your single sentence summary to the same audience. If the writer’s target audience is largely female, then this is a good choice.
But if the story is action adventure and the target audience is male, then the gender of the survivors may or may not matter. This will be a personal decision and will differ from genre to genre and story to story.
The New & Improved Version
Notice, however, that the word ‘shipwrecked’ got lost in the shuffle. That’s a pretty big detail. It has a lot of emotive impact, so the only thing I would do now is to put it back into the sentence. The final sentence for this class is:
A bereaved Marine Corps reservist helps three women survive shipwreck on a jungle island, unaware that one of them is responsible for his wife’s murder.
Time for discussion. What changes might you make?
Do you have questions about your own single sentence summary? Now is the perfect time to ask!
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.