The second layer of plot

Last post we talked about the first layer of plot for your novel—your one-sentence summary.

The purpose of a one-sentence summary is to break the ice. To separate people who are in your target audience from people who aren’t. To give your target audience an opportunity to say, “Tell me more!”

So let’s say you’re at a writing conference and you’re getting off the elevator with an agent after giving your one-sentence summary. He hands you his card and says, “Make an appointment with me.”

Now what do you do?

First, make that appointment. Every conference has its own way to handle appointments, so figure out how it’s done and do it.

Then prepare.

Let’s begin with the end in mind.

What do you want to achieve at the end of the appointment with the agent?

That’s easy. You want the agent to ask you to send him a proposal or the full manuscript or both. (Different agents want different things.)

How do you get the agent to ask you to send him stuff?

That’s easy. He’ll only ask to see stuff if he reads a sample chapter and likes it. The bottom line for all agents is that they need to like your writing. They need to know that they can sell your writing. They need to know that they want you in their stable of authors. So in your appointment, you need to have a polished first chapter of your novel and you need the agent to ask to read it.

How do you get him to ask to read it?

That’s easy. He needs to know that you have a correctly structured story. Western civilization has a long history of story-telling in which there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You may think that’s obvious. Good for you that it’s obvious to you. But it isn’t obvious to everyone. Plenty of beginning novelists write tens of thousands of words that wander around without any clear beginning, middle, or end.

But professional novelists write novels that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So your agent wants to know that your novel does. That raises a problem.

Your sample chapter of your novel can’t possibly tell the beginning, the middle, and the end. It just can’t.

That means you’ll need to communicate your story structure to the agent verbally. The good news is that you can do it in one long paragraph of five sentences.

That paragraph is called your one-paragraph summary, and it’s essential for selling a novel. It contains the bones of your story.

The one-paragraph summary assumes one thing—that you’ve already communicated your one-sentence summary.

From the one-sentence summary, the agent knows what genre you’re writing and what problem your lead character has to solve.

You may need to review that when you sit down with the agent. Then he’ll say, “Right. You’re writing a romantic suspense World War II novel about the woman in Nazi-occupied France who falls in love with the injured commando who’s parachuted in to Normandy to blow up the ammo dump right before D-Day. I love that kind of story. Now tell me more. I need some details.”

The agent doesn’t need a lot of details. What the agent needs are five sentences that will demonstrate that you can take your reader on an emotionally satisfying journey. That’s all. Just five sentences. Each does a specific job. Here they are:

1) The first sentence tells a bit about the setting and one or two lead characters in your novel. This should include the location, time period, and the names of the characters. Most importantly, it should highlight their personal paradox—something that makes them interesting or that creates conflict.

2) The second sentence tells what happens in the first quarter of the story. It should end with a disaster that forces your lead character to make a decision that commits him to the story for the rest of the book. Up until now, your lead character had a choice to back away. After this point, your lead character will be fully engulfed in the story. He can’t get out.

3) The third sentence tells what happens in the second quarter of the story. Your character tries to solve his problem, but he gets in deeper. By the midpoint of the book, something awful happens—another disaster. And this forces your lead character to rethink how he’s operating. Up till now, he’s been trying to win in the wrong way. But from now on, he’ll be trying to win in the right way.

4) The fourth sentence tells what happens in the third quarter of the story. Your character is now working smarter, but the opposition has wised up too, and the stakes are rising. This sentence ends with another disaster—the worst one yet. This disaster forces the lead character to commit to a winner-take-all final confrontation. If your story has a villain, then the villain also commits to that same confrontation. After this point, it is clear that there can be at most one winner, or there can be two losers. But they won’t both walk away winners. (Note that romances have no villains, so they typically have two winners and no losers. But a romance novel still has some sort of final confrontation where either the obstacle to the romance will be destroyed, or else the relationship will fail.)

5) The fifth sentence tells how the story resolves. There is a final confrontation. Either the lead character or the villain emerges apparently victorious. But not quite—there’s generally a twist or two in which it looks like victory will turn to ashes, or vice versa. Then there’s a climactic ending. You need to somehow summarize all this into one sentence.

A few important points to keep in mind:

Each sentence needs to focus on one major thing, so think carefully about what your story is REALLY about.
These sentences can be fairly long, but don’t get silly. You’re looking for sentences of 15 to 30 words. Don’t cheat and make a run-on sentence of 500 words. A summary is a SUMMARY.
Yes, this is really hard work. It’s a rare writer who can make this stuff up in the heat of the moment, sweating in a chair across the table from a real live agent. You need to do this in advance.
Set a timer and give yourself one hour to do this. An hour is plenty. If you can’t do it in an hour, then you can’t do it at all with the story you’ve got, and you’ll need to rethink things. Five minutes is too little. If you dash it out in five minutes, you probably aren’t done yet.

An example is in order here. We’ll look at a classic story, Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. The one sentence summary goes like this:

Pride & Prejudice is a historical romance about a young English woman who meets an arrogant, obnoxious, rich young man who is secretly in love with her.

In a romance, there typically isn’t a “hero” and a “villain.” The two lead characters are often protagonists and antagonists simultaneously, although sometimes there’s an external force keeping them apart. In P&P, Mr. Darcy is driving the romance because he’s the one in love with Lizzie Bennet. Lizzie is resisting. This means that the three major disasters are going to be seen by him as disasters, even if not all of them seem like disasters to her.

So here’s my one-paragraph summary for Pride & Prejudice.

Lizzie Bennet is a young woman with four unmarried sisters and a crazy mother who is determined to find wealthy husbands for all of them. When Lizzie meets the fabulously wealthy Mr. Darcy, she hates him instantly, and she hates him even more when she learns that he once cheated the charming Mr. Wickham out of his living. When Lizzie goes to visit her married friend Charlotte, Mr. Darcy keeps turning up and they have a series of awkward conversations that end with her rejecting his terrible proposal of marriage. Lizzie soon learns that all her reasons for hating Mr. Darcy are wrong, and she is just starting to mend relations with him when her youngest sister Lydia runs off to live in sin with Mr. Wickham, ruining the family. Mr. Darcy tracks down Wickham, pays him to marry Lydia, restores the family’s good name, and proposes once again to Lizzie.

That’s it. 151 words, which is not bad. Shorter would be better, but there are some social complexities that simply have to be explained in this paragraph. Let’s analyze the five sentences:

1) Sentence 1 is 25 words and puts Lizzie in her social context and tells us her basic problem—she needs a man, but she’s got a weirdo mother who’s going to make it harder than it should be.

2) Sentence 2 is 33 words and brings in both Lizzie’s love interest and the scandalous Mr. Wickham, putting them both in the wrong light. Wickham looks better than he is, and Darcy looks worse.

3) Sentence 3 is 32 words and takes us to the mid-point disaster in which Lizzie rejects Darcy in the most final form possible. She says he’s the last man she would ever marry, and she means it. If Darcy is going to get Lizzie, he’s going to have to change his whole way of thinking and acting.

4) Sentence 4 is 40 words, which is longer than I’d like, but there are four essential characters to manage here, plus the fact that in this era, one black sheep in the family ruins the marriage prospects for everyone.

5) Sentence 5 is 21 words and tells how Darcy saves the day and gets the girl in the end.

Notice how much is left out of this one-paragraph summary. There is nothing about Lizzie’s sister Mary and the puppy-like Mr. Bingley. There is nothing about Lizzie’s hideous cousin, Mr. Collins. There is nothing about Bingley’s scheming sister Caroline or Darcy’s frightful aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. A huge amount of the story has been stripped right out.

But that’s okay. There’s a time and a place to talk about those other characters and their storylines. The one-paragraph summary is not the time or the place.

The structure of a story with a happy ending is simple: Want. Loss. Bigger loss. Biggest loss. Victory. Those are the five sentences of the one-paragraph summary.

The structure of a story with a sad ending is similar, but Victory is changed to Defeat.

The structure of a story with a bittersweet ending is similar, but Victory is changed to Victory/Defeat.

Most stories are one of these three kinds of story.

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