The one-line summary of your novel: The very idea strikes fear into the hearts of many writers. How can you boil down your whole novel to one line? And make it an interesting line to boot.
It's hard enough boiling our stories down to a query letter let alone a single sentence, but we all have to do it. You'll need to be able to tell people what your book is about in one sentence. And not just agents. This one line is also for all those family members, friends, and people you meet who ask about your book. It's even for bookstore folks who ask you for your one-liner so they can hand sell your book to customers.
Trust me, I've given that one sentence to a lot more people than I ever sent a query to. Having something solid and interesting will not only help when that novel is out there in the book world, but it'll also make it easier for you to understand your own novel while writing it.
Because this one-line summary is the essence of your story. Whenever you're lost or unsure what to do next, look at this sentence and remind yourself what it's about. If where you're going or what you're stuck on isn't serving that one line, there's a good chance that's why you're stuck. Look for ways to get back to this sentence, this story anchor, and you'll find your way again.
So where to start? Just like your query, look at the key elements.
- WHO is your protagonist?
- WHAT is their problem?
- WHAT is the gotcha?
WHO is your protagonist?
This can mean lots of things. You might be fine with just the name of the character, but there's probably something about this person that makes them special. They're the hero for a reason, right? So what is that key thing about them that makes them the main character of this book?
This can also be a group of people if you have multiple POVs. You might say "five friends" or "a band of thieves" and mention what connects them.
WHAT is their problem?
Something is driving the story and making your characters act. It'll probably be either the inciting event that sets everything in motion, or what they have to do to win. There's a good chance this is the thing that first came to you when you thought about the idea for this story. The core conflict driving the entire story.
WHAT is the gotcha?
This is the "oooo" factor that puts your protagonist in a bind. That cool detail that sets your novel apart, and probably plays a strong role in the story somehow. It might be a plot point, character goal, or conflict. It could even be the theme. It's most likely going to be related to the core conflict of the novel in some way, and something the reader will spend the book looking forward to.
Once you have those three pieces start putting them together. It's okay if it's a bit general, because too much detail can actually confuse folks. You want to give them enough so that the book sounds cool, but also something they can grasp quickly and remember.
Using The Shifter as an example, I get:
WHO is your protagonist? A girl who can shift pain.
WHAT is their problem? Her sister goes missing.
WHAT is the gotcha? She has to use her ability to save her sister, which will get her in a lot of trouble.
I played with these details and came up with:
The Shifter is about a girl with the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person, and when her sister goes missing, it turns out to be the only weapon she has to save her.
You might notice the "is about..." in there. Unlike loglines or pitch lines, this summary is designed to verbally answer the question "So, what's your book about?" Some might be able to dive right in and just say it, other might need that intro to get the flow right. This is something you'll be saying, not writing, so make sure it can roll off the tongue easily. I've seen loglines that failed miserably when said out loud, even though they worked great on paper.
When you have lines you like, practice saying them out loud. That's a great way to test them.