René Penn

Aspiring author writing about the journey.


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3 Formulas to Help Write a One-Sentence Novel Summary

I’d like to post about some of the “book basics” that I’ve found particularly challenging, starting with the one-sentence book summary.

One way to write a great summaryanastasia-zhenina-65700-unsplash.jpg is to see examples—by browsing Amazon.com, for instance. But you know where I found some fantastic, concise, summary grabbers? Right on TV, while thumbing through the channel guide. There is a treasure trove of summaries right at my couch-potato fingertips. It’s a great tool to see what types of summaries you like, and see what may work for you. But first…

What is the one-sentence summary?

A one-sentence summary is a description of your book in 25 words or less. Some people even say that 15 – 20 words is ideal.

It may also be called a pitch, a one-liner, or a longline (the latter is often used by screenwriters for their scripts).

Why do we need it?

It’s the quickest way to explain or write what your book is about. It’s the hook to entice readers to want to buy your book. It also serves as our compass, our true north, as we continue writing the book.

When will we use it?

Provide the one-sentence summary when family, friends, and agents ask what your book is about. It’s a concise, informative, high-level description—and it won’t make their eyes glaze over with rambling details.

It will be used on query letters to agents. And you’ll probably include it in the future on marketing materials for your book.

It’s also a valuable tool for the author, itself:

“If you read that one-sentence summary every day before you write your next scene (or edit it), you’ll always know when you’re going off track or when you’re already derailed.” — Randy Ingermanson

When should we write it?

Many resources say that it’s best to write the one-sentence summary at the beginning of your book project’s journey, or as close to the beginning as possible.

How do we write it?

Ah, the tricky part. There are many posts that go into great lengths about this. But here are the three formulas, for lack of a better term, that resonate for me.

Formula 1:

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I like this style because it clearly defines your protagonist, your antagonist, and your protagonist’s goal. Those are the things needed to tell the story and create tension. It’s a one-sentence teaser of what readers can expect.

IndieWire describes this concept in an article about loglines.

Formula 2:

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This approach may work better if the antagonist isn’t a person. For instance, your book may be a situation where the protagonist is battling their own demon—they are their own antagonist. Or, it may be helpful if your book is based on a theme. This may also work better for romance novel summaries.

Nathan Bransford talks about this more in his post.

Formula 3:

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Who is the story about? What is the problem? What are they trying to accomplish; what is the goal? What is at stake if they don’t accomplish that goal? How does the story end?

Marni Freedman covers this more in her post.

This formula is great for making sure that you have enough meat and potatoes with the story. When I struggled with the saggy/soggy middle during an earlier iteration of my book, I went back to this formula. It helped solidify what the story was about, and the sag went away.

Other helpful resources:

What tips did you use to write your one-sentence summary?

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash