Monday 14 July 2014

Your Book In One Sentence

I'm taking a break for the summer, but in the meantime I'll be reposting some of my old articles you might have missed. Here's one from last April.

When someone asks you what your book is about, it can be a very difficult thing to sum up in a line or two.

Even after you’ve finished it, capturing the essence in a way that does it justice can be more frustrating than writing it in the first place. I usually end up rambling like I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Not only would it be very handy in social situations, but also professionally. A clear concise way to tell people about the book in a way that lets them know what it’s about, but also hooks their interest in some way.

So how do you do that?

This is one of those things where most advice is fairly generic or you’re presented with a lot of examples of famous books and films that are so well known the title alone grabs people’s attentions. It’s difficult to learn anything from those sorts of examples.

My first thought was to consider how non-fiction books differed in this regard. If I was writing a non-fiction book and you asked me what it was about, I think it would be fairly easy to answer. It’s about how to build your own time machine.

Now, if that was what the book was about, would I need to give you any more information (I mean before you’d consider buying it, or at least having a closer look)?

I don't think so. You know whether it’s a subject that interests you or not. Whatever the subject, you only need to know that basic information.

If, on the other hand, I was writing a novel and you asked me the same question, and I said it’s about a guy who builds his own time machine, would you need more information?

I would guess yes you would.

The difference, I think, is that in the non-fiction book, once I have the information what I choose to do with it is up to me. Once I build the time machine (and believe me, I’d build it), I may not know where I want to go with it (or when) but that’s okay, I can take it from there.

In fiction, since I don’t get to choose how the guy in the story uses the time machine, I’d like to know a little more about his plans. If I’m going to join him on this journey, I don’t want to find out his goal was to go back 24 hours and stop himself from eating that whole tub of Haagen Dazs.

So it seems to me that what we need to know is the character’s situation (he builds a time machine) and what he plans to do with it (let’s say he wants to go back and kill Hitler).

If you think his intentions are interesting, perhaps you will want to go back with him. If you think it’s predictable and clichéd, perhaps you won’t. You don’t need to reveal how things turn out, just enough information to show the intention.

Having come up with this idea, I thought I should test it a little more. Let’s say the non-fiction version is a book about women who fell in love with the boyfriend or husband of a close friend or family member. A bunch of interviews describing various experiences in this area.

Would people buy that book? I think they will at least know very clearly if it’s their sort of thing, and take it from there. I don't need to really give any more details as far as catching someone's attention goes.

The fiction version, a woman falls in love with her sister’s husband. And... let’s say she decides to break them up. Is that enough to tell a prospective reader what it’s about and whether it’s something that might interest them?

I think so. The reader might want to know a little more before committing to reading the book, but they'll have a pretty good idea if it's the sort of story they like to read.

Establish the situation, then give the consequence of that situation for the character.

It may take a little fiddling with the wording to capture the tone of the story, but I think you might be able to get across the gist of the story just by doing that.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If you're creative, it's possible to describe any book in one sentence.
I'm better at coming up with the logline than I am the entire synopsis. I guess that's where my knack for few words comes in handy.

mooderino said...

@Alex - it's usually when a writer tries to force in too much info into one line that things become unstuck.

The Armchair Squid said...

The very best works of art in any medium, no matter how complicated they eventually become, are usually based on very simple ideas. Perhaps if a story can't be described in one sentence, one should think about how the story can be simplified rather than the sentence.

On the other hand, as you know, I just read a Murakami book and I have no idea how I'd describe it in one sentence. And yet, I'm quite certain it's a good book. So much for my theory.

Murees Dupè said...

I always find it hard to come up with that valuable elevator pitch. Great post.

Chemist Ken said...

It difficult for me to establish the situation and consequences without wanting to explain it in great detail. Reminds me of the same problem I face when trying to decide how much backstory I should include in the actual story. Thanks for summarizing the process.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the re-post. I hope you have a wonderful time off.

Brent Wescott said...

Hey there Mooderino, you can't take a break because I just got here. But I guess I'll have to just catch up with your old stuff. That'll do.

Anyway, about this post, I was going to say what Alex J said above. I can tell what my whole novel is about, but I was asked to write a short synopsis and couldn't do it in less than two or three thousand words. That's another problem, I guess.

mooderino said...

@Squid - I think it's at least important to know for yourself what a story is about. I assume Murakami knows (right?).

@Murees - I think most people do.

@Ken - over-explaining feels like it will help but usually makes things more muddled.

@Lilith -cheers.

@Brent - hope you'll stick around. New posts soon (or eventually).

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