Writing a Single-Sentence Summary – An Example

Welcome back to our free, online clinic on writing single-sentence summaries. If you’ve missed any of the previous clinics or would like a review, here are the links.

So far in this clinic, we’ve talked about the parts and functions of a single-sentence summary. The parts are a character, a goal, and an obstacle.

The functions are to interest potential readers in your novel. Last week, I talked about the intangible function of painting a word picture of your novel in your reader’s mind.

All of that is well and good, but it’s only the how-to stuff you need to write a good single-sentence summary.

This week, let’s work on writing one.

I’m going to present one of my own fledgling story ideas to show you what the process looks like in real-time. This example will also demonstrate how you can use single-sentence summary to strengthen a new story idea before you begin writing the story.

An Example from the Archives

This is an idea that has lingered for many years, but has never progressed very far. It’s been percolating in the back of my mind long enough that some facts have taken shape.

A Unique Character
Almost from the beginning I knew the character was a university professor. It didn’t take long to discover he was a history professor who also wrote books about history. I don’t know his name, yet, but that’s okay. Remember, we don’t need names in the single-sentence summary; just an interesting or quirky character.

A Goal or Challenge
My professor writes books on the side and he does a lot of research for every book. Since his books were nonfiction about actual events, his research includes trips to historic locations. Usually during the summers, when he isn’t teaching. So his goal for the story was to complete on-site research for his next project.

An Obstacle
The only thing I know about the obstacle was that someone or something is  going to make it difficult for the professor to finish his research and possibly change his goal. Of the three elements that go into a single-sentence summary, this one was most vague.

But even then we’re not totally in the dark because I’m pretty sure this story wants to be a mystery. Given the nature of a typical mystery novel, it’s reasonable to expect a murder.

character-goal-obstacle-1The First Draft

So we have the three parts of the single-sentence summary.

Can we write a single-sentence summary with the information I’ve provided? Absolutely. Here’s mine.

“A history professor conducting research uncovers a recent murder.”

It clearly states the facts of the idea as we currently know them and is sufficient to serve as a guardrail for writing the novel.

Making Improvements

But it isn’t very exciting. It is, in fact, just the bare bones of an idea and probably wouldn’t excite any but a mystery fan willing to read any mystery. We definitely need to add some sparkle to this single-sentence summary.

The best way to find the unique details that will turn this quite blah summary into a work of art is to brainstorm each of the three options. I write lists. Whatever method of brainstorming that works best for you is what you should do. Give it time and effort. Don’t expect perfection—that’s a fool’s errand—but don’t let yourself be too easily satisfied, either. Your best efforts are likely to appear after you’ve put in sufficient work to get your brain actively engaged in the process and after you’ve slept on the idea a few nights. Never under-estimate the power of the subconscious in this process.

Now, back to our intrepid professor and his quest.

Finding the Lead Character’s More Unique Qualities

obstacles-arise-from-personality-goal Let’s begin with the professor, since getting to know him better will help us understand his goals and, therefore, the obstacles most likely to face him.

How can the professor be made more interesting?

A few thoughts spring immediately to mind. The history professor:

• is a time traveler
• is an alien in a foreign land
• is afraid of heights
• is a protégé trying to prove himself
• is elderly and trying to hang onto his position
• has a severe physical disability
• is obsessive-compulsive
• is recently divorced and working off his anger with his next book
• is a senile old man living in a nursing home and reliving the past

Notice that this brief sample of traits, quirks, and qualifications includes physical, mental and emotional traits, and age. You should consider anything that applies or may apply to your character when you’re looking for unique traits or quirks.

Once you’ve chosen the most unique characteristic, don’t discard the rest. There are likely to be interesting sub-plots contained on this brainstorming list. A recent divorce and the associated anger could be exactly the sort of internal conflict to add to the professor’s difficulties.

Or they could cloud his judgment to the point that he inadvertently puts himself in danger.

Describe a Goal or Challenge

Our history professor is doing research. That’s not very unique. All kinds of people do research and for all kinds of reasons.

But what if the professor is researching family history, trying to figure out what happened to Aunt Opal and why Uncle Merle hasn’t said a word since her death or disappearance?

Other possible goals on my list are, the professor

• wants to be wealthy
• wants to become a bestselling author
• wants to please his father, who was hyper critical
• wants to prove his ex-wife was wrong about him
• wants to be respected
• wants to change the world
• wants to escape the world
• wants to protect a personal secret
• wants expose the secret of someone else

Some of these goals are broad-based and some are more personal. Wanting to be wealthy is pretty general, but wanting to be a bestselling author is more personal.

Some of the goals are similar. Wanting respect and wanting to prove his ex-wife was wrong about him could be basically the same thing, but at different levels.

Take a look at the last two. I’ve put the character on both sides of the secret with these two. Don’t forget to consider those kinds of options. It would be interesting to write about someone who is attempting to expose someone else’s secret while protecting his own. For a little added conflict, his secret could be closely connected with the other person’s secret. Talk about internal conflict!

Describe an Obstacle

Remember that the best, most believable obstacles flow naturally from either the nature and personality of the character, or the nature of the goal. Sometimes both!

It may be difficult to get past generic obstacles until you know more about the character and/or the goal. It’s okay if your obstacle list reads like the list below. You are still at the beginning of the process, after all.

Here’s a sampling of my obstacle list.

• He’s too old
• He’s too ill
• He’s too well-known
• He’s not well enough known
• He doesn’t have the right knowledge
• His family objects
• He could be fired
• He could be killed

See what I mean? Pretty basic. Don’t worry. Specifics will come.

Finding the Right Combination

So what are the best options for making the professor more interesting?

Obviously, any option that pits the professor against a killer (or any crime, for that matter) will work best for the genre (mystery) and story.

But I wonder if the most interesting story might have its roots somewhere else. I know, for example, that he’s afraid of heights. Deathly afraid of heights. Pass-out-and-fall-over afraid.

So let’s try this:

“A history professor who is afraid of heights uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.”

That’s more interesting than your basic history professor. A fear of heights could add interest to the plot.

Now let’s look at the goal and obstacle combination.

My professor is doing very specific research. He’s a writer of nonfiction books on history with a focus on American history. His current project is railroads so how can we make that more interesting and pivot off the fact that he’s afraid of heights? Easy. The railroad is a mountain railroad! Towering peaks. Deep valleys. Trestles. Long, narrow trestles….

The automatic conflict of this sort of situation is immediately appealing.

“A history professor who is afraid of heights researches a defunct Appalachian Mountain railroad.”

Better, but still not quite there.

Notice an element of the original sentence has disappeared. The most interesting element, no less. Murder and the threat of murder. That needs to be put back in.

Because it’s also the most significant element of the summary, it should go at the end. This is called back-loading. End the sentence with the thing that creates the best hook. In this case, murder most foul.

The New & Improved Version

“A professor who is afraid of heights researching a defunct mountain railroad  uncovers a long-buried secret and a recent murder.”

It’s longer and more complex than the sentence we started with, but all the elements are there. There’s enough information to intrigue most mystery fans and a lot of others, without presenting too much information.

What’s more, it’s 21 words long. Perfect!


When you’re looking at possible combinations for your new story’s single-sentence summary, it’s a okay to begin with the most obvious ones. Depending on the number of ideas, you may have anywhere from one or two ideas to a half dozen or more that seem obvious. That’s great!

But don’t stop there. Some of the better ideas may come from the less obvious options. Try every option on for size. You never know where the right combination will come from. Just as you worked with the brainstorming portion more than one day, work this step more than one day, too.

I know it sounds like a lot of work—and it is. I know it also seems like wasted time when you could be working on The Obvious Idea. But no time you spend here is wasted. Especially if you spend months writing The Obvious Idea only to discover it’s also passé.

Be patient.

Be diligent. If you get tired of the process after a day or two, take a break. You don’t need to push through every step to the end without a break. Remember my idea? It’s been percolating for years. Years!

What do you think? How would you improve my single sentence summary? Leave your comments and suggestions in the comment box below and let the discussion begin!

Your Assignment

Write a single-sentence summary for your current work-in-progress if you haven’t already done so. If you need a place to start, start with the obvious, then look for ways to make the sentence sparkle. Don’t worry if it seems to take your story in a direction other than what you’ve planned.

If you have new idea in mind, start writing single-sentence summaries for it, too. Use the single-sentence summary to develop the strengths of the character, goal, and obstacle.

If you share your homework here, take a moment to comment on other’s sentences, too.


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