Testing your plot with a one-sentence summary

elevatorEvery story needs a compelling plot. One good test to make sure you have one is if to sum up your story in just one sentence. This is often called a one line hook, a one-sentence pitch or an elevator pitch. Basically, pretend you are in the elevator with someone (editor, agent or potential reader) and you had only one sentence to get them interested in reading your book. What would you say?

I know that one sentence sounds hard but in the age of Twitter with its 140 character limit, we should be used to reducing down our message whether it is what we are doing or a sales pitch. You can even tell a “story” in just 140 characters. I did that for my local newspaper at Halloween when they asked for “spooky” submissions that were just 128 characters (when you excluded the hashtag).

Here are 2 of mine…

Tap, drag, tap, drag. The harried breathing gets louder as it nears. A zombie? A ghoul? What can it be? Oh, it is just Grandpa.

His fangs lock on the zombie’s neck. Growling, he thrashes his head as he saves me. Never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

I loved the challenge of this assignment and the newspaper published I think three out of the four I submitted. Just last month in an interview I was asked to sum up my story Destiny in just 20 words. It took a few tries but I did it. Here is is…

As the instrument of prophecy, Lina strives to save the Lands while battling the woman determined to take her magic.

Not sure I am using that as my hook but it just shows that it can be done. Remember that your one-sentence summary (pitch) is not the theme of your book. An example of a theme is “This book looks at the thin line between right and wrong.” Your pitch is about what happens.

When writing your pitch you should include:

  • A character or two
  • Their choice, conflict or goal
  • What’s at stake
  • Action needed to reach goal
  • Only mention setting if it is important to the story

Remember to keep it short and only focus on the main conflict. You don’t even need to name your characters. Focus on using strong nouns, verbs and adjectives.

Examples

Summoned – A young woman is drawn from her home into a danger-filled journey that forces her to use her innate magic to save herself and her friends.

From Writer’s Digest:

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone – In order to protect the wizarding world that he has so recently inherited, Harry must prevent the sorcerer’s stone from falling into the wrong hands.

From Rachelle Gardner:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

In the south in the 1960s, three women cross racial boundaries to begin a movement that will forever change their town and the way women view one another.

Now do all stories have to be able to be boiled down to just one sentence – No. There are pieces of work – epic tales – that cannot be shortened into one sentence because there are too many protagonists and stories to be told. But for most authors, their stories can be shortened and this is certainly a good way to verify that you have a complete, compelling story to tell.

3 thoughts on “Testing your plot with a one-sentence summary

  1. Paula Cappa says:

    I find story synopses and these one-liners to be most challenging. I like the examples given here. When I read the one-liners on the best seller lists in NYT Book Review section, they are always so flat. It’s kind of like writing a long headline. Brevity! What an art in itself.

  2. […] first comes plot…I need a compelling story with a well-defined conflict before I can even worry about the world building. And I think I have […]

  3. […] true. I like the characters I have developed. I think once I iron out the plot to make sure it is strong and compelling that this will turn out to be a great […]

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