Plot is a complex beast. A novel has at least six layers of plot. This month, we’ll look at the outermost layer—the one-sentence summary.
Why write a one-sentence summary? Because your one-sentence summary is a powerful sales tool.
If you’re traditionally published, you need to sell your story seven times:
You have to sell it to your agent.
Your agent has to sell it to an editor.
The editor has to sell it to the publishing board.
The editor also has to sell it to the sales team for the publisher.
The sales team has to sell it to the buyers for the bookstores.
The bookstore has to sell it to the early-adopter readers.
Those early-adopter readers have to sell it to everybody else.
If you’re indie published, you only need to sell your story twice:
The online retailer has to sell it to the early-adopter readers.
Those early-adopter readers have to sell it to everybody else.
The one-sentence summary is a selling tool that helps make each of these sales happen.
But there’s one sale you need to make before you sell it to any of those people. You need to sell the story to yourself. You need to convince yourself that it’s a great story worth writing. You need to know what the story is that you’re writing. If you’re a planner, you can’t even write the story until you know what it is.
If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you can’t edit it into final form until you know what it is.
What is the one-sentence summary? It’s one sentence of 10 to 25 words that captures the spirit of the story.
The one-sentence summary is not the place for details. It’s the place for coolness. It’s the place where your target audience says, “Ooooh!”
Let’s be clear that it’s also the place where people not in your target audience say, “Uh-uh.”
That’s right, your one-sentence summary is not only a sales tool, it’s a sales-preventer.
Why would you want to prevent sales?
Because most people are not in your target audience. If they buy your book, they’ll hate it and won’t finish it. It isn’t ethical to sell a book to people who’ll hate it. So your one-sentence summary should give them the information they’ll need to know they’re going to hate your book.
Some people are in your target audience. If they buy your book, they’ll love it and will become your lifelong fans. You’re doing them a favor by helping them find you. And your one-sentence summary is the easiest way for them to realize that you might be their favorite author in the universe.
So the purpose of your one-sentence summary is to separate the sheep from the goats. Separate the people who will love your book from the people who will hate it.
That may sound like an impossible task. How can one sentence of 25 words or less possibly close the sale on your book?
The fact is that it can’t. Closing the sale is not the purpose of the one-sentence summary. Breaking the ice is its purpose.
The one-sentence summary is usually the first piece of information a prospective customer will get about your book. It gives that customer enough information to know whether she wants to know more. After hearing the one-sentence summary, your target audience should be saying, “Tell me more!”
The classic example is this: Suppose you’re at a writing conference and you get in the elevator with an agent who’s going up one flight. The agent looks at you and politely asks, “What do you write?” You tell him your one-sentence summary in the few seconds between floors. When the door opens, the agent walks out. If he likes your one-sentence summary, he hands you his card and says, “Make an appointment with me.” If he doesn’t like it, he says, “Have a nice day.”
This is the great virtue of the one-sentence summary. It’s very efficient at connecting you with the right sort of people and steering you away from the wrong sort of people.
Imagine instead that the only way to get an agent’s ear was to make an appointment with him and spend fifteen minutes of his time and yours. Then he’d be swamped with appointment requests, and you’d be so busy talking to the ten agents not interested in your book that you might never meet the one agent who is.
You might think that you don’t need a one-sentence summary because you already have an agent or because you’re an indie author so you don’t need an agent.
But that’s wrong. A reader browsing in a store or on Amazon or skimming the daily pitches on BookBub is going to look at the cover and title and then skim a sentence or two of the back-cover copy. Based on that sentence or two, she’ll either move on or stop to read more.
You can put too much pressure on yourself when writing a one-sentence summary. It’s scary to think that this is your one chance to hook that editor or agent or reader. It’s easy to cobble together a 100-word sentence that gets in every single scrap of cool stuff you’ve got.
Don’t do that. Don’t force-feed. Take the one coolest thing in your book. Say it in 25 words or less. Then stop. Give the editor or the agent or reader a chance to digest it. Now the ball’s in their court. If they say, “Tell me more,” now you have permission to give them a paragraph or two. Maybe a hundred words. Then again give them a chance to respond. They’ll feel respected, because you’ll be respectful.
Here are some one-sentence summaries for books that have come out over the last few years:
1- A 17-year-old girl falls in love with the cute guy in her biology class, and then discovers that he’s a vampire.
2 – When his wife goes missing, Nick Dunne cooperates with the police—until he realizes he’s the main suspect.
3 – When her sister is chosen in the lottery, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place with twenty-four teens in a battle to the death.
#1 is the one-sentence summary for Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. The storyline seems simple enough, until the last word, which flips it from ordinary YA into paranormal.
#2 is the one-sentence summary for Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. There’s more to the story than this one sentence—much more. You really can’t pack this story into a single sentence, and it would be a bad idea to try. The novel is a psychological thriller, and the sentence makes that clear.
#3 is the one-sentence summary for The Hunger Games. It’s clear that this is a YA dystopic action novel. The summary doesn’t even hint that there’ll be a strong romantic thread in the story. That would only confuse things at this point.
In each case, there is more selling to be done. The one-sentence summary gets people in your target audience interested enough to ask for more info. That’s its job. That’s its whole job. So you’ll need more selling info, and you’ll need excellent writing to back up your sales copy. The one-sentence summary is just the start, but it’s an essential piece that you need for every novel.