Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do You Have to Sum Up Your Book in One Sentence?

Not long ago I believed that if you couldn't sum up your novel in one sentence, you were doomed. If you couldn't do that, you didn't know at all what your book was really about. In several ways, I still believe it, but as I write more and more I've discovered that part of that belief is complete nonsense.

Why a sentence is good
First of all, it's kind of nice to be able to talk about your book in one sentence. You know, when people find out you're a writer and they ask you what one of your novels is about, it's nice to feel confident in that one sentence. I used to hate it when I stumbled and fumbled with my words, trying to think of how I could sum up that huge story into a little tiny description. Now, if someone asks me what Monarch is about I tell them it's about a CIA spy who who has to track down a big-time terrorist, but also save his own heart in the process. The problem? There's so much more to the book than that. There's even more to the book than the back-of-the-book blurb. Lots more. The blurb on the back doesn't even mention the other two huge story lines and points-of-view.

Oh, well, though. That's marketing for you! It's also unrealistic to think everyone wants to sit down and talk about all the intricacies of your book with you. What they really want to know is the basic plot and idea, and honestly, if you don't know that about your own book, you might have some problems.

For instance, when I first wrote Monarch, I honestly had no clue what the book was really about. It's about a spy, I told myself. A spy who isn't like other spies. I wanted to take the James Bond character ideal and turn it on its head a little bit. I did, but even after two drafts the focus in my story wasn't clear. So, after realizing this, I finally took the time to figure out where I wanted to focus, and I rewrote the book with that focus in mind. Tada! The book worked. It wasn't quite as easy as I make it sound, but that was the core of it.

Why a sentence is bad
Just like you as a person can't be summed up in one sentence, neither can your novel. There are so many layers, so many characters and intricacies and ideas that boiling it down to one sentence is almost absurd. I've often thought the idea of my books sound absolutely boring when boiled down like that. For instance, Cinders is the story about what happens to Cinderella when she decides her prince isn't who she wants after they get married. Hmmm, interesting concept, but wow, that's missing a lot. My novella Thirds is about a girl who wants the same magic as her two evil stepsisters. That sounds overdone, if you ask me.

What I've concluded is that summing up your book into a sentence can help you in a lot of ways, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary. I also don't think your book is totally lost if you can't sum it up. Some stories are much more complicated than others, and all writers function completely different from one another. I know I've asked my friend, J.S. Chancellor, what her books are about in one sentence, and she told me I was nuts if I wanted her to do that. 

Will learning how to sum up your work in one sentence help you with a query? Probably, yes, but as I've discovered, a query isn't the embodiment of your novel. It doesn't even begin to explain your book to its full capacity. It's more like dangling a worm on the end of a hook, like the back-of-the-book blurb of my novel, Monarch. My publisher and I decided what to focus on, and we ran with it. That book could be marketed probably 80 different ways. The blurb that's there now is the worm we decided to dangle.


  1. Yes I agree with both your good and bad assessments of summing up your novel in one sentence. The mistake I made was thinking I had to write a novel defined by that single sentence. When I threw teh sentence out the novel wrote itself. It's complex and a single sentence doesn't do it justice, but,as you say, it's a lot easier to rattle off a sentence when someone asks that dreaded question "What's your book about?'

    Judy (South Africa)

  2. I think some of the best advice I ever received was . . . three sentence pitch. Yeah, one sentence is great, but, to me, three is better and provides more depth.


  3. Judy: Yeah, that's the problem. I think it's a bad idea, in most cases, to define a book by a sentence or even a few sentences. I'm glad you figured out you don't need to!

    Scott: I even think three sentences, or even a blurb like I talked about for Monarch, can be a dangerous territory to base our entire book. Three does provide more depth, definitely true, but I think it's the same concept as one, in a way. Good and bad things about it.

  4. Yeah, one sentence? Not happening. Not even on a good day. I mean, I *could* say the plot for Romeo and Juliet is 'Boy meets Girl' but like you so aptly said, that's missing A LOT of the heart that makes that story what it is.

    A three sentence pitch is a little better. If I REALLY had a gun to my head, maybe, I could come up with three sentences to describe one or two of my novels. But, I doubt it. I'm just not gifted at taglines, and that's essentially what pitches are. Did you know there was a point in time when books were so few you didn't need catchy taglines? Or pitches? Imagine a world without all the fluff. *sigh*

    Great post Michelle!

  5. Michelle, I like what you say at the very end of this post. That short summary just has to be interesting. It doesn't have to cover everything. It's like an appetizer rather than a sampler plate.

    As an aside, I remember reading a summary for Jhumpa Lahiri's short story Nobody's Business, and it sounded so stupid. The story, however, was superb. What made it great wasn't captured in the summary at all.

  6. Good point. I can sum one of my stories up in one sentence and I also have a query written for it. There is so much more to the story than what's in the query and sentence. They're kind of like umbrellas. A quick way to say this is what it's about but the details explain why the sentence sums up the story.

  7. I liked the exercise of trying to come up with one sentence (actually I agonized over it but it was so helpful in the end that I'm really glad I did it). It made me boil the story down to its essence. I, like you, had to do a lot of rewriting afterward. There were way too many things in my story that took away from what was important.

  8. It depends on the type of novel. An idea novel, one that revolves around one idea, is perfect for a sentence pitch. My current novel started as one sentence. "Howie has a problem, someone is stealing his mind and the only one who can help him is a girl who has already lost hers."
    It works perfectly for that book but a book that is all about the characters, say, Romeo and Juliet a one sentence pitch wouldn't work. "Two teenagers want to have sex but their parents are against the idea."

  9. "In 1601, a would-be Danish philosopher is plotting to assassinate his king, who is father to Prince Hamlet." or something like that. Yes, it's just marketing and there are any number of ways to boil a story down to one sentence. All of them are mere shadows of the novel, but you just need to entice someone.

    And you do need to entice people. Not only will your "elevator pitch" be the core of a query with an agent, your pitch will be used by your agent with editors, who will use your pitch at acquisitions meetings and marketing meetings and you'll use that pitch when you're being interviewed about your book. Why is the author expected to come up with the pitch? Because you, dear author, are supposed to be more intimately knowledgable about your book than anyone else. You are supposed to be the World's Best Authority on your own book and are expected to be able to speak engagingly and interestingly about it. Nobody knows your book as well as you do, etc.

    But like Michelle says, if you write your book based on a one-sentence premise, people probably aren't going to want to read more than one sentence of it.

  10. Great post. I agree it can be very frustrating trying to sum up a book in one sentence. I've also found though that if you can, summing in one sentence does help with the writing process. After I'd finished the first draft of my novel I realized I didn't quite know what the point of the whole story was. Eventually, after coming up with a focus that fit one or two sentences, I found that effort greatly helped with the rewrite as I was able to adjust the story to have more of a tangible goal.

  11. I've done the one sentence summary/pitch, and it was a good exercise, but I'd hate to think that "One girl’s farfetched stories shed light on shipwright’s past and change his future" sums up my novel!

  12. I think I finally came to grips with this concept when I changed it from, In one sentence, summarize your book to...

    In one sentence, tell the other person what you want them to most know about your book right now.

    It's semantics in some way, but I revel in semantics...

  13. Interesting post. I think it's probably a good exercise to be able to summarize your story in one sentence, but it's not the be-all end-all.

    I like C.N.'s take on it. What do you most want your readers to know? That's something I can deal with.

  14. I see myself looking through movie channels, reading the one sentence description, and the number of stars. Then, my eyes catch the actors, and they trump everything.

    Similarly, as newbies, that one sentence is all we have as an i.d. card to join the pantheon.
    After that, after our name is well known, we can demand more space for our nuanced narrative.

  15. Great post! This discussion always raises my anxiety level!

    I think, out of necessity, though, you do have to learn to describe your book in one sentence, in two sentences, in 25 words or less, in 140 characters, in two paragraphs, in a synopsis!

    Every publisher seems to want a different descriptor length, even when pitching to them, and every time a book comes out publicity likes to see long, medium, short, shorter and even 1- and 2- sentence descriptor for a variety of uses, be they in print or online, etc.

    Then, too, whenever I post something on or Smashwords, I find that the shorter, one- or two-sentence "teaser" blurbs tend to get the most play, so... what are you going to do?

    To my way of thinking, the more and different ways you have of describing your book "at a glance," the better you'll get at it. Thanks for the post, and a place to rant!!!

  16. J.S.: Haha, well, I don't think anyone's going to put a gun to your head over it. I hope not, anyway!

    Davin: Yeah, interesting is the whole idea. I think the other problem, though, is that we expect it to be interesting to everyone, and in reality it's just as subjective as anything else.

    Patricia: I like the umbrella idea!

    Lois: Yeah, I learned a lot when I did the one sentence thing. It was actually a bit devastating in a lot of ways, but I got over it. Hehe.

    Project: Good point about the type of book. I can see how certain books might be better suited to a one-pitch than others.

    Scott: Very true about the enticing. I've found that I've used the idea of my one sentence pitch more than I can even keep track. Since it was signed with Rhemalda, I've encountered endless places where I've had to use it. It's quite handy! And necessary!

    Aron: Yep, I'm like you! I never, ever, ever come up with the sentence before the book is done. I have to finish first, and then I figure out what the point is so that my revision process is that much more focused. It helps a lot.

  17. You do need to perfect this skill - I had no clue how to sum up my book in one sentence until the publisher forced me to. They wanted "a 300-word summary, a 100-word summary, a paragraph, and a one-sentence description" for various marketing efforts. I started with the big one and kept whittling it down each time until I found the core element. That was a good exercise, to start with the long summary and keep cutting.

    I also had to perfect a 30-second elevator speech. Now you've got me wondering if I should already be thinking about that while I'm in the early stages of my WIP!

    Probably I'll worry about it much, much later.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  18. Alex: Yeah, I had to do stuff like that for Monarch. I was just glad I had a synopsis already done that I could work from. That helped out a lot! The thing is, like I talked about above, I can't usually do any of that stuff until the book is completed at least as a first draft. So much changes for me with the actual writing.

  19. I'm so with you on this. One sentence reduces a book to a cliche: "Girl meets sullen boy, hates him, then changes her mind" (Pride and Prejudice) or a joke: "Girl travels to strange land via tornado and can't get home until she finds the right shoes." (Wizard of Oz.) What can be effectively reduced to a sentence or a phrase, like "Snakes on a Plane" is usually a snooze.

  20. I can relate to the idea that the basic blurb can never account for the supporting plot or points of view. I've found this off-putting while writing my query letter, especially since I feel the supporting characters really give my story its heart in a way that isn't obvious at all through my query.

    I agree. A one-liner is sufficient when someone asks, "So, what's your book about?" but no so sufficient for much else.

  21. I agree with Nevets. That's a very good way of looking at it.

    Unfortunately, just trying to sum up your novel in one sentence often leaves you with a very trite and cliche-sounding novel.

  22. Shannon: That's true, but as my agent says, publishing folks will assume that your book has more depth than can be expressed in a sentence or two. But you should still be able to quickly let someone know if you're writing a YA vampire romance or something else.

  23. I'm heartened to see more and more articles debunking the current conventional "wisdom" of publishers, literary agents, etc. There's nothing wrong with marketing art, properly, but art was never meant to conform in unnatural ways, let alone for the purpose of making the marketer's job easier.

  24. Totally get both sides of the argument. And I'm so there with my book.

  25. It's all been said here. I find that I need the sentence for those who really aren't listening. You know, the casual mom in the store who asks what your book is about. They don't *really* care and you have to say something....

  26. C.N. Nevets has it exactly right. The purpose of the one sentence (or two, it doesn't really matter as long as it's punchy) is not to sum up your book, but to hook your reader. That one sentence doesn't even have to be about the main plotline. It just has to be a juicy, wriggly, irresistible worm that will latch on to someone's brain and not let go until they've read the book. As long as it has relevance and draw, it's a winning summation.

  27. Anne: I LOVE your examples, hehe. I haven't seen Snakes on a Plane, but I think the whole plot is in the title and I don't need to. ;)

    Ashley: Yes, that's the fundamental problem with querying, I'm afraid. I like the idea of sending a synopsis, instead, but even that doesn't get it all across. If only there was a faster way for agents to know the entire story and all the intricacies faster. Then again, that might make more problems than not.

    Shannon: Scott has a good point below, I think. It really sucks that our entire book has to be summed up, but that's pretty much the only way to get someone interested in the first place, so it is a necessary evil. I wish you luck in reducing yours down to something you're happy with.

    William: Yes, that makes sense. Unfortunately, like any entertainment system these days, selling books is a business and must be treated as such. The more I work with my publisher, the more I begin to see why they have to do things certain ways. If they did not, they wouldn't survive or exist. I believe the problem lies much deeper than publishing.

    Stephanie: Aww, I wish you the best of luck!

    Tess: Exactly! I find most people really don't care that much. They might if the book was right in front of their face, but not when it's just going through conversation.

    Cas: Exactly. A hook, and that's it. That's why we went with the thriller/Nick angle on Monarch. It's a great hook, I think.

  28. Unless you have a high-concept idea (and even then), I think reducing a novel to one sentence almost always makes it sound trite and derivative. Two or three paragraphs - like a blurb or query - isn't so bad, you can at least communicate the essence of the story. You might not be able to explain everything, but then you don't want to - that's why people read the book.

    I forced myself to boil my current MS down to one sentence, just to see if I could do it - I managed it, but it's a pretty long sentence. With a semi-colon :)

  29. Anthony Burgess once said a single sentence pitch is like trying to play a symphony only using two fingers.

    That said, it shouldn't put you off from trying.


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