When I was a very young and inexperienced writer, the best advice I got from published authors of my acquaintance was to pick up a copy of Dwight Swain’s book, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. Yes, this book has been around that long. Actually, this book has been around longer than I have. Before I had a chance to snag a copy from my local bookseller, I received a copy from my Great-Aunt Gladys, who was also a bit of an angel, encouraging my literary aspirations from the time I was two-years-old.
I consumed the book. I devoured it. I internalized it. I made its advice part of my subconscious. I refer to it frequently. My ancient copy is bright yellow, which makes it easy to spot on a crowded bookshelf from far across the room.
The power of two sentences changed my life as a writer.
One of the most difficult tasks for novelists is to condense their story down to less two hundred words. When someone asks you what your story is about, the temptation is to give all the backstory, the world-building and the details you painstakingly created. Nobody wants that. They want to know what the story is about.
Swain said that the heart of your story contains five elements, which can be reduced to two sentences: one a statement, the other a question.
I’ve found that keeping this in mind when creating my own story summary helps immensely. When someone asks me what SOVRAN’S PAWN is about, I tell them –
When convicted traitor Bo Barron’s father is kidnapped, she has to go under cover on an interstellar cruise liner at a gambling tournament to steal plans for an illegal weapon that are being auctioned off to meet the ransom demand. An attempt on her life by a mysterious methane breather, and the timely intervention of a handsome Inner Circle agent leave Bo wondering whether there is a weapon at all and will she survive the cruise long enough to rescue her father?
That’s a seventy thousand word book condensed into eighty-two words.
- Character – Convicted traitor Bo Barron
- Situation – father is kidnapped
- Objective – (There is a dual objective here) Stealing the plans, but also recovering her father
- Opponent – Mysterious methane breather (stated) Kidnappers (implied)
- Disaster – getting herself killed, or losing her father
You know, if I were brutal about it, I could trim it even more.
Let’s take a story you’re probably more familiar with, like STAR WARS (ANH)
When Luke Skywalker learns he’s in possession of stolen plans, he joins forces with Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to turn them over to the Rebellion. But can he rescue the princess and keep the plans out of the hands of Darth Vader, who is determined to destroy the Jedi and recover the plans no matter the cost?
Or this movie?
During WWII, American ex-pat Rick Blaine finds himself in possession of stolen letters of transit and no easy way to rid himself of them. When the Nazi occupying force, an underground leader, and Rick’s ex-girlfriend all conspire to recover the letters, who will get the letters and who will end up dead or in a concentration camp?
See? Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.
Pick a favorite book or movie…any story really, and try it! Let me know how it works for you!