I’m not going to lie—my story is awesome. There’s a unique take on time travel, a backstory that slowly emerges in a perfectly timed revelation, and enough hidden motivations and plot twists to satisfy even the most jaded readers.
“Wow,” you say. “So, what’s your story about?”
“Um—” And that’s where it falls apart. Taking all that awesomeness and cramming it into a pithy sentence is hard. Impossible. And completely necessary. Think about it. When was the last time you picked up a new book, opened to chapter one and kept reading with no other information? I’ve probably never done that. Even if all my friends love it, and it’s gotten rave reviews, at a bare minimum, I’m still going to start with the synopsis on the back. I want to know the kind of book I’m signing up for. I don’t want all the revelations and plot twists. I just want the setup—and the hint that the twists are coming.
So, whether you’re pitching your story to an agent or the marketers are pitching it to readers—or, heck, when a friend just wants to know what you’re doing with all your spare time—you need a summary, and it needs to be short. A 500-word synopsis is great with your 10-page submission for a conference critique, but in real life, nobody is going to sit still long enough for you to drone on through 500 words. Two sentences are fine. One is better. And harder.
I’ve read lots of tips on how to distill your story to its very essence, but today I’ll share the method I recently developed based on a cartoon by John Atkinson. I discovered it in Time magazine, but you can get it on Atkinson’s site here: “Movie-plot generator.”
When I first read it, I went straight across the first line and got, “Geeky monkey plans a heist on a plane.” I laughed. Then I started mixing them up. “Superhero Steve Jobs blows stuff up with Channing Tatum.” I giggled. “Kung fu zombie falls in love somewhere in the Middle East.” I spent waaaay too long on this little cartoon. You will, too. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Then I had a revelation. That little chart was the key to developing my own pithy story blurb. With a little reverse engineering, I had my own Plot Summarizer, and now I’m making my methods available to you.
How to Distill Your Awesome Story to a Single Sentence
Step 1: Type out a list of adjectives that describe your protagonist.
Step 2: Write out a list of nouns that sum him or her up.
Step 3: List verbs that summarize your inciting action. Remember, this one-line summary is the setup for your story, so you’ll want to use an important action from the first part of the book, not the climax.
Step 4: Brainstorm a list of phrases about how, when, or where the action takes place.
Step 5: Plug in combinations until something starts to gel. If nothing works, repeat steps 1-4.
Step 6: When you have the beginnings of a decent sentence, ditch the chart and focus on making that single sentence sound good. You don’t want your line to read like it actually belongs in a chartoon.
Step 7: Say your sentence out loud. Rework any phrasing that feels awkward.
Step 8: Tell it to someone.
It can be hard to let go of all the nuances of your story, but this method really helped me. The result is still a work in progress that I’ll certainly revise as I try it out and get reactions from different people. But now, when someone says, “What’s your story about?” I know what to say:
My story is about a teenage time traveler who helps a girl escape her father’s murderer and then must time travel through her family’s past to discover the murder’s connection to his own family’s hidden crimes.
What’s your story about?