Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What's It About?

Before you do anything else you should write a brief statement about what your book is about. You shouldn’t write the first paragraph, the first sentence or even the first word without doing that. And when I say brief, I mean brief. Get it down to one short sentence. There isn’t a bestselling novel out there that can’t be summarized with one brief sentence. All the great movies can be summarized with one brief sentence.

When you think about it, it makes sense. If someone asks someone about what they’re reading or a movie they’ve seen word of mouth is more likely to work if the reader can summarize the book in just a few words. What’s Beauty and the Beast about? It’s about a young woman who is forced to live in castle with a beast. The Hunt for Red October? It’s about a Soviet submarine captain defecting to the U.S. without telling anyone what he is doing. But if someone asks us about a story and all we say something like “it’s complicated,” our hopes of them remembering the story are dashed and they certainly won’t be telling others about it.

It’s easy for us to latch onto some idea we have for a story and not want to let it go. We imagine our characters in a given situation and we start building the story around it. But when we’re done we don’t have a great story. Instead we have a mess made up of events that guide our character into the situation we wanted the character to experience. We try to explain the mess we’ve created and no one understands it. At best our story is okay, but it isn’t impressive.

If you find yourself in a situation where you wonder if people will like the story you’re writing, look at that brief summary. If you aren’t sure how to write that brief summary, then I can assure you that people aren’t going to enjoy the story. If you have a brief summary and the summary isn’t such that you are anxious to find out how the story takes place then people aren’t likely to enjoy the story as much. But if that brief summary gives you a thirst to know how it turns out, it is much more likely that people will enjoy the story.