Single-Sentence Summary – Reader Submission

icy-wastelandWelcome to the fifth and final class in this month’s story clinic on writing single-sentence summaries.

If you missed the previous lessons or would like to review them, here are the links.

This week’s lesson comes from a reader. Lettice submitted her single-sentence summaries in the comments on other lessons and has graciously agreed to let me use her sentences as the subject for the final class. Thanks, Lettice!

About Lettice’s Novel

Lettice’s story is still in the planning stages. She’s working on the single-sentence in search of the best focus and direction before she begins writing (a great way to use single-sentence summaries). Here’s her paragraph summary.

Young Harry was bereaved of his father some months ago and is stuck in the grieving process, angry and withdrawn, moving into non-functioning depression. He’s in the hot sunny garden, lying on the lawn, wishing the world would go away–and it does, literally: an unseen hand grabs the land and rips it off like a band-aid, leaving him lying in a freezing wasteland, all desolation. Harry has to summon up enough interest to move from here and not just freeze to death. He does, eventually, and finds a scary forest. He is faced with various challenges (characters, events) on the way through the forest, which lightens or darkens, becomes more or less like his garden as he conquers or fails each challenge. When he conquers the last challenge his garden fully reappears and you see that it is exactly back at the moment we started with, but he is now ready to join in.

Lettice isn’t sure about the genre, though she thinks it might fit into the children’s fantasy/adventure category. Possibly the 8 to 12 year old range.

Lettice’s Single-Sentence Summaries

Lettice submitted two single-sentence summaries. Here they are:

1: A young lad is stuck in his grieving for his father, becoming withdrawn. He finds himself transported to an icy wasteland, and must find his way back home.

2: A young lad is recently bereaved. He must re-engage with his life but is stuck in his grieving. Can he find a way through?

She has two good attempts. Of the two, the first one has less backstory and is only one sentence, so that’s the one I’ll work with for this class.

How to Make it Better

Lettice’s sentence is 28 words long. That’s more than the maximum but not by much. With a little rewriting, it could be shortened very nicely.

Let’s look at the parts of the sentence.

The Character

The character part of the sentence reads “a young lad is stuck in his grieving for his father”. Eleven words, many of which are dead weight in a single-sentence summary. Words like “is”, “in”, “his”, and “for” could all be eliminated.

But when you’re writing the first drafts of a single-sentence summary, write what comes to mind and fix it later. Just like you do when writing the first draft of the novel.

Another way to describe the character would be “a young grief-stricken lad”. This phrase says essentially the same thing as the original phrase, but it’s half the length.

What’s more, the word “grief” creates an immediate mental picture with most people. Potential readers will “paint” character’s situation with their own experiences. An immediate connection forms and that’s what you, as the writer, want.

Couple “grief” with “stricken” and you’ve painted an even more intense mental picture.

Always look for words that evoke imagery. Words like jungle, desert, and blizzard are common enough that even people who haven’t experienced them “see a picture” when they hear the word.


The character’s goal in this story is to isolate himself from life, to withdraw. A character’s goal does not have to be noble or even good. Most of us wouldn’t think withdrawing from life was a worthwhile goal, but it doesn’t matter what we think. The story is not about us; it’s about the character and when the story begins, his goal is to withdraw.

That doesn’t mean that has to be his goal for all of the story. Goals can—and often do—change through the story. That’s okay, too.

What Lettice will want to do is see if there’s a goal that’s pertinent to the rest of the story and that might work better in the single-sentence summary. Her paragraph summary does suggest a few things.

  • Survive the sudden change in story world
  • Get back home
  • Defeat his enemy
  • Escape the icy wasteland

It’s not necessary to change the goal for the single-sentence summary, but when you’re writing a single-sentence summary, you want to present the story in the way that best describes the entire story, not just the beginning.

While the character’s goal is to withdraw from life at the beginning of the story, that goal vanishes pretty quickly. In it’s place, the character is trying desperately to get back home, to the garden. Any time a character wants something desperately, that something should probably be mentioned in the single-sentence summary.

That goal is already included in the single-sentence summary so we’ll make it the goal for the sentence.


In this story, anything that keeps the character from getting home is an obstacle. As the single-sentence summary is written, the primary obstacle is the icy wasteland. This is a great obstacle that helps readers visualize the story overall.

It also balances the goal very well and gives Lettice plenty of room to explore all the ways in which an icy wasteland can present obstacles, challenges, and setbacks without locking her into any particular situation. Since she’s still in the planning stages, the obstacle works extremely well.

A Very Important Point

character-goal-obstacle-1Lettice has done something with her sentence that may look backward at first. She’s told us about the character, then about the obstacle, and then—at the end of the sentence—about the goal. Although I almost always think in terms of character then goal then obstacle, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what Lettice has done.

In fact, the order of this sentence is the best arrangement because it puts the most important thing at the end of the sentence, the character’s desire to get back home.

Putting the Pieces Together

A young grief-stricken lad is transported to an icy wasteland and must find his way back home.

That’s a pretty good sentence and it’s down to seventeen words. And you’ll notice, the only thing I really did was shorten the character part of the sentence. The rest of Lettice’s original sentence is pretty solid. It’s more than equal to the task of helping Lettice stay on track as she writes the novel.

Parting Thought

Keep in mind that no single-sentence summary is ever perfect, especially if you’re using it the way Lettice will be using hers. We writers can plan all we want, but stories have a way of taking on life of their own during the writing process.

Be aware of that and be flexible. The single-sentence summary is designed only to help you make plotting decisions as you work on the novel. You will probably need to revise the sentence by the time the novel is finished.

Thanks again to Lettice for letting me use her sentence for this lesson.

And thank you to everyone who followed the series.

Next month, I’ll take a look at developing characters. I hope you’ll join me.

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