The recent post I did (HERE) on condensing your story into a line or two received some interesting feedback so this follow-up post will take a deeper look at the techniques involved in summing up the story into something short, easy to understand and yet interesting. And the pitfalls along the way.
Bear in mind the idea isn’t to come up with a beautifully crafted slogan that makes people want to rush out and buy the book on the strength of the logline alone. Your job isn’t to invent bubblegum that tastes like a three course meal. If people want to experience those flavours they should just eat a three course meal.
This will be more about telling somebody what the story's about, whether they be an agent or your mother.
I’m going to base my examples off the movie Jaws. This is because you will already be familiar with the story (even if you’ve never seen it). But since you already know the story and are aware of how successful and well-received it is in popular culture, it’s going to be hard not to bring your preconceptions to it.
So, if you asked me what it was about and I said, “It’s about a big shark that eats people,” that would be enough for you to recognise the movie. But if you’d never heard of Jaws you might say, “And?”
In many ways this is the main problem with trying to capture a whole book in one line. You are the person who’s seen Jaws and can immediately see the story behind the short description above. But the person you’re telling hasn’t even heard of it. In fact the idea that fish eat people is something completely new to them.
Whatever you come up with to describe your book, you already know the extrapolated version that is your novel. A word or a turn or phrase will have significance for you that it won’t have for the person you’re telling.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
When a great white shark terrorises Amity Island, the Police Chief combines forces with a veteran fisherman and a marine biologist to catch the killer fish. What they don’t realise is they’re going to need a bigger boat.
Now, that sort of sums up the movie. But the added verve my little pitch has from the line “need a bigger boat” comes from the fact that you already know that it’s one of the most famous lines in movie history.
If you didn’t know that, it wouldn’t have anything like the same effect.
Even though intellectually you get what I mean, it’s still hard to fully accept. That bigger boat line, you might say to yourself, could still have some impact. It sort of suggests problems ahead, something for which they’re unprepared, but that feeling comes from an inability to put yourself into the mind of someone who truly has no preconceived ideas.
Without that pre-knowledge, it’s just a strange way of saying it’s a very big fish. Meaning what? That it’s a mutant shark the size of an oil tanker? That they set off in a rowing boat? It’s too vague to have any real meaning.
Even now some of you are probably thinking, It’s not that vague, because to you it isn’t. To you, no matter how hard you try to look at the line objectively, a residue of its meaning will remain.
And if it’s that hard to disassociate yourself from an old movie that you had nothing to do with, imagine how hard it is when it’s your story that you’ve completely immersed yourself in for months, maybe years.
When a writer tries to give their logline a bit of pizzazz to make it stand out and be more memorable, they might use a turn of phrase that’s cheeky or intriguing or clever. But often it will only make sense once you’ve read the book. Which is pointless, since the whole reason to write the logline is to entice the person to read it in the first place.
A common ‘solution’ is to try and condense the whole story into one very long line. As though if you squeeze it all in and it’s grammatically correct, no one can say you didn’t give them a clear idea of what it’s about.
Police Chief Brody’s job is to look after the people of Amity Island, a small seaside resort where not much happens until a great white shark decides to turn the beach into its feeding ground, but the Mayor doesn’t want to make a fuss and create panic on July 4th weekend, the biggest (and most profitable) holiday of the year.
The problem should be pretty clear; it just goes on and on, and I haven’t even got to what they decide to do. Frankly, give me the room and I’ll fill it.
What it comes down to is having to decide which is the important part of the story that will tell people what they need to know and focus only on that.
Easier said than done.
Police Chief Brody wants to close the beach after a shark attack, but it’s July 4th, the biggest weekend of the year for local businesses, and Mayor Vaughn insists the police chief is overreacting.
Is that the crux of the story? Or:
A cop, a marine biologist and a fisherman hunt down the great white shark that’s turned the beaches of Amity Island into its feeding ground.
Either way, I’m going to be leaving out loads of stuff that makes the movie great.
It can feel like you’re not doing the story justice. And it can also be tempting to fix this with more details; then the people who aren’t interested in one part might be won over by another.
When it comes to your own book, these feelings get magnified to an even greater level and it can leave you paralysed.
The most likely place to start is with the inciting incident, the moment when things change for the main character in your story and they realise they have to deal with whatever they have to deal with.
You don’t need to fill in details and provide an introduction. If Jody moves to a new town with her recently divorced mother and starts to get bullied at her new school, you only need to tell us Jody’s being bullied at school.
And if Jody reacts by trying to talk to the bully, then the teachers, then her parent, until finally driven to desperate measures she kidnaps her bully, you only need to mention the last bit.
Interesting problem that arises and what it leads to. That’s all.
Once you decide the angle you want to take, you have to forsake all others. For now. You still have a whole book with all those other good bits (and probably also the dreaded synoposis *shudder* to write), so it’s not like those other ideas will never see the light of day.
Back to Jaws. The story problem is that a great white shark decides to make its new home in the waters around a beach packed full of tourists. This leads to the local police chief having to gather a motley crew to go out and catch a killing machine with over 300 teeth in its head.
I'll still have to fiddle around with word selection and word order to make it sound as entertaining a proposition as possible, but at least I now know which parts I need to use to get the story across.
Feel free to let me know how you would sum up the movie in one line in the comments.
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