Single-Sentence Summary – Painting a Word Picture

Welcome back to our month-long writing clinic on single-sentence summaries. This is our third class. In case you missed them or would like to review them, here are the links to previous classes.


In the previous class, we talked about the three parts of a single-sentence summary.

  • An interesting character
  • A goal that’s important enough to the character that they’ll do anything to get it
  • An obstacle that keeps the character from easily getting their goal

interesting-character-irresistible-goal-immovable-obsctacleGoals can be related to the character’s personal life, family life, work, or a long-term dream. As we saw in the example of Joe and the hamburger, the goal could also arise out a particular habit or quirk.

Obstacles are best when they arise naturally out of the character’s personality or goals. They are the least likely to seem contrived or phony that way.

While length is important—single-sentence summaries should be no longer than 25 words and are more often as short as 12 to 20 words—it’s the last thing I work on because it’s easier to edit after writing than while writing. At least for me.

Now on to an intangible quality of a great single-sentence summary.

Painting Pictures with Words

painting-word-picturesYour single-sentence summary’s most important role is drawing a potential reader into your story.

The best way to generate reader interest is to paint a word picture. Creating a vivid word picture is just as important as character, goal, and obstacle but is a lot more difficult to measure.

And a lot more difficult because it’s intangible. You can measure the interest level of a character. The goal and obstacle are usually also pretty clear.

But how in the world do you paint a picture with words, when you have so few words to work with?

The best way to paint a word picture is to chose words that automatically evoke certain images. Words like “desert island”, “jungle”, “open sea”, “dark woods”, and “disaster”  call to mind powerful images. Yes, the images may differ in detail from one person to the next, but the general concept is there.

For example,

What do you see when I say the word “jungle”?

My guess is that most of you will see a place with towering trees, thick vines hanging to the ground, close growing undergrowth, and swarming insects. You may hear the chatter of birds and monkeys, the roar of wild animals, and the buzz of all those bugs. There’s the smell of a slow moving, piranha-filled river and of rotting vegetation. Maybe even a dead animal.

See? A total sensory experience because of one word.


You really don’t need to say anything more to create the basic story world.

trail-through-dark-woodsHow about desert? What sensory details are conveyed on that word?

Or open sea or mountaintop?

Or that dark woods I mentioned earlier.

There are many words capable of evoking vivid imagery in the minds of most people. It’s up to you to find the ones that work best with your story and the idea you want to convey. But find the right one and you’ve found gold.

When to Use Those Sensory-Rich Words

Do you remember my saying you should never name a character in the single-sentence summary? Do you remember why? Because names don’t convey any particular thing to potential readers. Unless you use a famous name like Benedict Arnold, readers won’t be able to deduce a thing from your character’s name.

But if you describe your character—a burger-a-holic, for example—then readers can begin to see the character.

That applies to the names of settings, too. Pengate Wood doesn’t mean a thing to anybody—not even me because I just made it up. But dark woods  or city park  do. Yes, the picture won’t be complete and it will vary from reader to reader, but the picture created by either of those two words will be a lot better than the non-picture evoked by a character name.

Yes, there are times to use names. If your story revolves around the Statue of Liberty, then by all means, name her.

Let’s look at the first draft single-sentence summary I wrote for Joe and his Burger Quest. Here it is.

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

Notice that I didn’t name Joe. He’s a burger-a-holic. What sort of picture comes to mind? An overweight man (from eating all those burgers)? A farm boy?

The other sensory-rich word in the sentence is “tornado.” Who doesn’t know what a tornado is or what it can do? That one word provides a wealth of sensory information to potential readers. Not only does it communicate Joe’s immediate and most threatening obstacle; it paints a word picture of a threat to the entire community.

An Example

Here’s a brief description of the novel, Stranded, by Don & Steph Prichard.

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.

How would you edit this to single-sentence summary status AND paint a picture of the novel with word choice?

Here’s the first attempt. Notice immediately that the word count went from 48 words above to 28 words here. That’s close, but still too long.

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.

Here’s a revised version.

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.

Can you spot the words that automatically paint word pictures? By my count, there are four. Bereaved, shipwrecked, jungle, and murder.

Jungle is the big one. It replaces five words in the first two sentences. With that one word, you no doubt “saw” a particular type of setting. That’s a heavy-duty picture-painting word.

Bereaved creates a universal emotional context. Shipwrecked and murder also create situational contexts and are familiar, if not as universal as bereaved or jungle.

That’s what painting a word picture looks like.

Find those kinds of power words for your single-sentence summary and you’ll paint a word picture that turns potential readers into readers.

Your Assignment

Take a look at your work-in-progress. What kind of picture do you want to create in the mind of a potential reader? What sensory-rich word can you use to help paint that picture?

Share your sentences in the comments below, then take a few minutes to comment on the assignments of your fellow students.

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