Friday, June 17, 2011

Pickup Lines: The One-Line Summary

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Awesome Janice! This is a great formula, timely too I'm working on this right now. I also LOVE your clever blog title :)

  2. Thanks for the formula. And the example. Very helpful.

  3. Ooo yes! I'm finishing up a proposal workshop class right now, and we started with a one-sentence description of the premise. It was hard at first, because I kept trying to make it more "hooky" or logline-ish. But the answer to the "what's your book about" question has a slightly different focus.

    The instructor mentioned that this premise statement should be clear and explained within the first couple of chapters. In contrast, loglines will often include information about the climax or details of mid-point complications.

    So I'd bet that by the end of your first couple of chapters, we'd see your protagonist use her ability, see how it's unique, learn about her sister, and see her get into trouble. :)

    Here's what I came up with for mine so far:
    My story is about a stay-at-home mom who stumbles into a secret society of immortal guardians and must defy the power-hungry traitor in their midst.

    It's not perfect, but it's better than what I had. :)

  4. It's also handy to have a one or two sentence description that is aimed at particular types of people you talk to.

    For example if I'm talking to a person who loves media science fiction but isn't a big reader, I describe THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN as a classic STAR TREK style novel but with a ship of scientists who are first responders to planetary disasters who face a powerful alien hellbent on destroying a human colony.

    If the person is into re-inacting, I talk about the planet which was settled by SCA-types who recreated a fantasy-style kingdom of nobility, castles, and horses.

  5. Very simple and doable.

  6. Another great topic, Janice! Thanks for calling out the distinction between a written one-line pitch and a verbal one. The approaches can be subtlely different, and I hadn't thought about that before.

    If you haven't seen it already, check out last month's Twitter pitch contest at Sisters in Scribe(May 6 post). There are some awesome examples on one liners.

  7. GREAT post, Janice - many thanks!

  8. Excellent suggestion for turning the logline into a verbal response. Thanks Janice!

  9. Thanks all!

    Jami: That's so true about the hook. I love that! Nya does use her power in the first scene, and by the end of the first act is her sister disappearing.

    Marilyn: I love having two pitches like that. What fantastic advice. I often get people asking me if my book is "like Harry Potter" since that's the only reference they ave for children's fantasy.

    Nicole: I'll check that out, thanks. Probably a great learning experience. I figured out how to write a query from reading Miss Snark's contests. You see enough bad ones you get a feel for what a good one sounds like.

  10. Thanks for sharing this formula. I am starting to write novels and, as people in my country say, this information is worth gold! Thank you very much, Greetings from Ecuador.

    1. Most welcome. Glad you found it helpful :)