Gina here: Last month at my local ACFW-Richmond meeting, Roger Bruner gave an excellent talk on plotting. One thing he shared was the progression of his one-sentence, which fascinated me so much that I asked him to share it with us. Welcome, Roger!!!
Making Sense of the One-Sentence
by Roger Bruner
Mission: Impossible or The Impossible Dream
Every writer needs a good one-sentence summary of her book. It should be no longer than twenty-five words. Shorter according to some experts.
Does that sound daunting? Absolutely.
Impossible? Not really.
Not if you’re as good a writer as you’d like to think you are. Start by writing the best and briefest possible summary of your book. Then cut out the details. All of them.
Stick to the generalities of your story—what the story is REALLY all about. In some cases, your one-sentence may state your theme.
Take out every word you don’t need. Look for better words—words to replace two or more existing words. Count what you have—by all means use the “Recount” feature if you’re working in Word—and repeat the editing process until you’re down to twenty-five.
Then look for ways to make your one-sentence better. It needs to shine. This sentence may ultimately hook an agent or an editor. Or fail to.
Here’s how I did one
Let me illustrate part of the process by showing you the one-sentences I wrote for Do I Ever!, my work in progress. I keep all of them in a single Word document, with the oldest version at the bottom and the most recent at the top (the opposite of how I refer to them below).
This helps me to keep from accidentally rewriting a previous version. And on rare occasions an earlier version may turn out to be better than a more recent one.
In the case of this one-sentence, I was able to begin with a reasonably brief synopsis because I’ve done a number of these for other manuscripts. Your first version may not be nearly this short.
If it’s not, start whittling away. In forming the one-sentence that best represents your novel (or non-fiction book), it’s like sculpture (or so I’ve heard): you take away anything and everything that doesn’t resemble the desired result.
Here’s my progression from oldest to current, along with a few comments.
When two divorcees pretend they’re still married, will their deceit rekindle
their own lost love and salvage the marriage of the two friends who introduced them? (26 words)
Comment: Clunky. Sounds like a horrible romance novel. Also, I decided soon after writing this that the divorce should be almost—but not quite—final.
When two divorcees pretend they’re still married, their deceit rekindles
their lost love and salvages the marriage of the two friends who introduced them. (24 words)
Comment: At least it’s shorter. The only difference is changing the question in version 1 to a statement. Same objections as before.
When two divorcees pretend they’re still married, their deceit rekindles
their lost love and salvages the marriage of the two friends who introduced them? (24 words)
Comment: Whoops! I copied the previous version except for ending with a useless question mark this time. No harm done, though.
When a couple fakes marriage to keep their best friends from learning of their divorce, their deceit rekindles their lost love and salvages the other couple’s marriage. (27 words)
Comment: “Fakes marriage” is a big improvement over “pretends they’re still married,” but it doesn’t make clear that the couple is pretending to still be married to one another. We also lose the fact that the other couple had introduced them, and that’s a major point.
A divorcée convinces her ex- to help her keep their best friends from learning about their divorce and rekindles the old flame in the process. (25 words)
Comment: This is substantially stronger—or is it? I didn’t like using both “divorcee” and “divorce” in the same sentence, though. Neither did I like “in the process.” And again we’ve lost the significance of the best friends as matchmakers.
A couple faking marriage to hide their divorce from their best friends falls in love again. But can they save their friends’ marriage, too? (24 words)
Comment: Definitely better, but what about the best friends as matchmakers? “Faking marriage” is still a problem, though.
Can a recently divorced couple keep the friends who brought them together from learning of the divorce and also salvage their friends’ rocky marriage? (24 words)
Comment: As I mentioned earlier, the divorce isn’t final yet, so this sentence isn’t accurate to start with. But it’s closer to emphasizing the right points. No need to include “rocky” in referring to their friends’ marriage, though; what other kind of marriage would need salvaging?
A couple faking marriage to hide their divorce from the friends who introduced them falls in love again. But can they save their friends’ marriage? (25 words)
Comment: This version comes SO close. Although I still didn’t care that much for “faking marriage,” I really thought this was it for a while. Until I came up with (drum roll, please). . .
While hiding their divorce from the friends who introduced them, a couple falls in love again. But can they save their friends’ marriage, too? (24 words)
Comment: I’ll bet you thought the whole idea of deceit was important to be specific about, but it really wasn’t; the need to deceive the friends was.
But what about the fact that this one-sentence is two sentences long? If anyone seeing it is THAT picky, I’ll use a semi-colon and lowercase the “But.” Case closed.
I’m not saying somebody else couldn’t do better, but I don’t think I can.
What’s the one-sentence good for, anyhow?
Just a few points now about how I use a one-sentence once I’ve (tentatively) perfected it..
The one-sentence helps me stay more on track in my plotting than any other single tool, with the possible exception of a one-page sell sheet. (Yes, I write that even before I finish my rough draft.) The one-sentence is actually the heart of the short synopsis that goes on my sell sheet, and I put it at the top of the sell sheet.
Everything I write in a novel must be true to the one-sentence summary. Therefore, the one-sentence deals only with the over-arching story. If you can refer to your subplots within the twenty-five word limit, more power to you.
I used to start editor/agent appointments at writing conferences with the so-called elevator speech, which was somewhere between thirty seconds and one minute in length.
But I’ll be honest. I had trouble remembering it, and I sounded like a robot when I tried to reel it off. Not a good combination of factors when trying to win the respect and support of an editor or agent.
So now I use my one-sentence. It’s easier to remember and—if necessary—I can glance at it before I start. (Since I may be pitching several manuscripts at the same appointment, that helps tremendously. I deliver however many one-sentences I need to and let the editor pick the one she wants to hear more about.)
Go and do likewise. . .maybe even better
The one-sentence should so accurately capture the meat of your manuscript that it alone can win or lose the interest of an editor or agent. If you’ve done a compelling job, she can tell in those twenty-five words whether your idea is worth pursuing further. If your one-sentence sells your interviewer, she will ask for details. That’s the time to let your enthusiasm carry you away and tell her about the story itself.
Now go practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more. Creative brevity may be the key to helping you become published.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: How do you feel about writing one-sentences? Do you have any you'd like to share?
Roger Bruner worked as a teacher, job counselor, and programmer analyst before retiring to pursue his dream of writing Christian fiction full-time. A guitarist and songwriter, he is active in his church choir, early service praise team, Sonlight service, and nursing home ministry. Roger also enjoys reading, web design, mission trips, photography, and spending time with his wonderful wife, Kathleen. Roger’s first young adult novel, Found in Translation, came out in January; the sequel, Lost in Dreams, came out in August.
Roger Bruner worked as a teacher, job counselor, and programmer analyst before retiring to write full-time. A guitarist and songwriter, he is active in his church choir, early service praise team, and nursing home ministry. Roger also enjoys reading, web design, and photography. Roger has two published YA novels.
Book 2: LOST IN DREAMS
Grace, hope, and healing intersect in the California mountains.
From the moment eighteen-year-old Kim Hartlinger steps off the plane from a mission trip to a remote Mexican village, her journey takes a turn for the worse. As she collides with the biggest challenge of her young life—and faith—Kim struggles with haunting questions and recurring nightmares. . .all the while trying to hide a deep, dark secret.
Will Kim find the hope and healing she needs? . . . Or is her broken spirit beyond repair?
Book 1: FOUND IN TRANSLATION
Faith, obedience, and forgiveness intersect in a remote Mexican village.
When Kim Hartlinger—eighteen and spoiled—arrives on a mission trip to Mexico and discovers, to her chagrin, that she’ll be doing construction in a remote village without plumbing and electricity, rather than evangelism in a medium-sized town with a fast food joint . . she has only two choices. “Rough it” (which isn’t exactly what Kim had in mind when she signed up for this trip) or turn around and head home.
Will Kim be able to touch the villagers’ hearts with the Gospel? Or will her time in Mexico be up before she gets the chance?
Both books are also available for Kindle and Nook.