Single Sentence Summary – Clinic 4

The single sentence summary is also sometimes called a tagline or log line. It is your novel boiled down to a single sentence of 25 words or less. During the month of February, we’ve been looking at examples of single sentence summaries and discussing how you can write your own.

Today’s Single Sentence Summary

We’re concluding the clinic with another reader submission. The genre is adventure/spiritual warfare.

Only a terminally-ill grad student stands between Lucifer’s army and civilization’s demise.

How does it stack up?

The purpose of the single sentence summary (aka tagline or log line) is to present a unique or interesting character with a clear goal AND a clear obstacle. It should also be as concise as possible.

Short and to the Point: This sentence is an ideal length–12 words. The maximum number of words most commonly allowed is 25, but there are times when a single sentence summary of 12 words or less is necessary. This one is right on the mark.

Describe a Unique Character: We have an immediate and very strong concern for the lead character because of his terminal illness. In addition to generating sympathy and compassion, it also suggests a time element. Does the student have a lot of time or just a little? How does that affect the story in general?

Describe a Goal: There is a big picture goal in this sentence, but it’s not a character goal. It’s more of a story goal: saving civilization.

What is the character’s goal? We can’t tell based on the single sentence summary.

Describe an Obstacle: Like the goal, the obstacle can be stated on two levels. The current sentence is on the spiritual warfare level. The goal is saving civilization and the obstacle is Lucifer and his armies.

But what about the personal level? Does the student have a goal? If so, what obstacle keeps him from achieving it?

How Can it Be Improved?

The tagline gives us a unique and interesting character with a minimum of words. There is, for the moment, nothing to change in these two areas.

Because of the nature of the story, I want to look at two potential ways to handle the goal and obstacle combination.

The Personal Level

This is the level on which most taglines function, so we’ll begin here.

Describe a Goal: A strong character is necessary to good story telling, but so is a clear goal. We know that our grad student stands in someone’s way (Lucifer) but we don’t know what the student’s personal goal is.

Does he want to graduate?
Does he want to find a cure for his illness?
Does he want to find buried treasure?
Does he want to please his parents?

Each of these is a legitimate goal. A good story could be woven around any one of these goals or any combination of them.

Given what we know about the character-his terminal condition-let’s say his primary goal is to find a cure for his illness.

With such a goal, the single sentence summary might begin:

A terminally ill grad student looking for a cure….

We now have a unique character with whom we have an immediate bond and a goal that anyone can grasp.

Describe an Obstacle: A good obstacle should keep the character from getting what he wants. It can be in direct opposition to the goal or it can be in opposition to the character or, in this case, the character’s condition.

For example, the character has a terminal illness for which he is receiving treatment. The side effects of treatment could be an obstacle. The symptoms of the illness might also be an obstacle. These two obstacles might be all that are necessary to tell an engaging and gripping story.

Obligations to family and friends might also be an obstacle or might lead to serious obstacles.

Assuming the student’s goal is to find a cure for his illness, what obstacles might stand in his way? Off the top of my head:

The cure is experimental
The cure is illegal
The cure is prohibitively expensive
The cure requires traveling to a foreign country

So we might end up with a single sentence summary like this:

A terminally ill grad student must travel across international borders for expensive, experimental treatment.

Notice I combined three obstacles. The treatment is expensive, experimental, and outside the student’s native country.

We can also infer that travel will be expensive and time consuming and if we have a really good imagination, we can also envision all kinds of hardships along the way.

But we’ve totally lost the idea of spiritual warfare.

This is where knowing your target audience comes into play. If your target audience is mainstream, you might not need the spiritual warfare aspect of the story in the tagline.

The Spiritual Warfare Level

Describe a Goal: The spiritual warfare aspect of the story may be the most unique thing about the story. The student definitely plays a role in the battle, but is he aware of his role? If he isn’t, then he really doesn’t have a goal relative to the spiritual warfare aspect.

If he is aware that a spiritual battle rages all around him, he will have a goal relative to that battle. What is it? It might be:

Resisting the lure of a terrorist organization
Resisting fear about his future
Standing between physical evil and his family or friends

Resisting fear could tie both levels together because he would have fears about his physical health and fears about his eternal health.

Describe an Obstacle: If there is a character goal on the spiritual level, there should also be an obstacle on the spiritual level.

Let’s say the student struggles with fear. That is his most persistent opponent in life and in spirit. The summary to describe that might be:

A terminally ill student seeking a cure is confronted by fear.

Pretty bland, but it does give you an idea.

Making a Choice

The direction you choose will ultimately depend on you and on the story you’re telling. Every story is different. No one pattern will work for every story or for every situation.

It’s helpful to know what genre and audience you’re targeting. A mainstream audience might enjoy a spiritual warfare story, but might be more interested in the personal struggles of a terminally ill person looking for unorthodox cures. That is probably the aspect of the story that needs to be emphasized.

On the other hand, a Christian or spiritually focused audience might be more interested in the spiritual level of the novel, so that aspect of the story might work better.

The New & Improved Version

There are ways to combine both levels without writing a long summary. For example:

A terminally ill grad student struggles with fear and the armies of Lucifer in his quest for a cure.

Nineteen words and a good idea of what’s taking place on both levels of the story.

What do you think?

Today is the final session in our story clinic. If you’re stopping in for the first time, you can read week 1 here, week 2 here, and week 3 here. The introduction is also available here.

If you have questions about your own single sentence summary, now is the perfect time to ask!

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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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