For years I have looked for the magic tool, the way to help me write better fiction so I can sell my stories. And when I found the best writer’s tool ever, it had been right in front of me the whole time: The Sentence.
Nearly every piece of how-to advice I’ve ever read has advised that the writer should be able to describe the book in a sentence or two. I thought I understood. I did not, not at all.
When I finished my book, My Soul to Keep, I constructed a couple pitches. The short one used movies to covey the tone and general conflict: It’s the Terminator meets Thelma and Louise in the world of the Handmaiden’s Tale. Sound good? I thought so. But it really doesn’t tell you what the story is about.
My longer pitch came nearer to letting you know what the book was about:
- It is 1978. But America is not the nation you know. It is an insular land of righteousness, repression, and fear, in a world where Kaiser four-door convertibles with guidance computers cruise unused highways and the Super Constellation flies the polar route from Newark, New Jersey to London, Pan-Germania. It is a noir world that never was, but could have been.
- In this dark time two women, one peaceful and loving, the other violent and unforgiving, are drawn into a maelstrom of political intrigue, familial deception, and social upheaval. Together they face the ultimate test of faith. Their triumph will free them, and the nation; failure will put them at the mercy of the angel of death.
I was particularly proud of that one. Unfortunately, it sells the world of the novel, more than the story of the novel.
Then I took Holly Lisle’s online courses: How to Revise Your Novel and How to Write Sideways. Between those two courses, I learned the most valuable tool I’ll ever need as a writer: The Sentence.
The Sentence Is Unique.
The Sentence tells the story in a single sentence consisting of a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, a setting, and a hook. Holly recommends The Sentence be no more than 30 words in length. (Holly teaches a lot more about The Sentence. Take one of her courses. You won’t regret it. )
Some of you out there are saying, “Well, duh! Everyone knows you’re supposed to write a sentence for your story.” I know. I came across the advice to reduce your story to a single sentence many, many times. But I didn’t get it. I thought of the sentence as a marketing tool and, as such, I made it sound good. Sounding good doesn’t make it a sentence that will work for you.
Others of you are going, “Huh? How can this be the single most important tool you’ve ever learned? Shouldn’t the sentence sound good?”
It’s simple. As a writer, particularly as a pantser, we get caught up in our writing, our characters or our world. We fall in love with our words and end up with lots of wonderful bits and pieces, but with an unfocused story. If you cannot reduce your conflict, your protagonist, your antagonist, your setting and your twist into a phrase of 2-3 words, your story is not focused enough. Period.
But I’m writing a series, you say. That’s all right. It still applies. Writing a series doesn’t mean your story is too complicated to reduce to a sentence. A series should have scope, but it should still be telling a story with a primary protagonist, a primary antagonist, a primary conflict, etc. And each book of the series should have The Sentence, too.
“Ugh,” you say, “I don’t outline.I write when and what my muse inspires me to write.” If you write best when you pants it, then be a pantser. The Sentence isn’t about how to write your story, it’s about how to focus your story.
The Sentence is not written in granite.
It can, and should, be revised after you’ve finished your story. This will not only help with your revisions, but it will also, when well-polished, be a tool to sell your story.
Now, a lot of you may still be going, “What? How on earth can I reduce my story to a single 30-word sentence?”
If you’ve already written the story, it is not easy, but it is possible.
It’s far easier to write your sentence, then write your story. I wrote The Sentence for My Soul to Keep after I’d finished it. It took many, many attempts.
Some of you may sneer, saying that all I’m doing is selling Holly’s courses. Yes, you’ll see my disclosure below: I am an affiliate because I believe her courses are valuable, worth every cent. But it makes absolutely no difference to me if you choose not to take one of Holly’s courses. What I want to share with you is my enthusiasm for this tool because it made a huge difference in my writing. It may be helpful to you, too.
Compare mybefore Holly’s courses sentence to my first attempt at The Sentence as I worked through her How to Revise Your Novel course.
- Original story sentence: In this dark time two women, one peaceful and loving, the other violent and unforgiving, are drawn into a maelstrom of political intrigue, familial deception, and social upheaval. Together they face the ultimate test of faith. Their triumph will free them, and the nation; failure will put them at the mercy of the angel of death. (56 words).
- First attempt at The Sentence: A housewife desperate to stop her nightmares rebels against the religious and social constraints of her life and ignites a revolution that may cost her everything. (26 words)
What Was Wrong:
The “before” sentence identifies two protagonists, it gives you only vague suggestions of the goals, conflict, and antagonist. It leaves questions in the reader’s mind all right, too many questions.
My first attempt to write The Sentence tells us what the protagonist wants and what she risks, but it still doesn’t tell you about the antagonist, only hints at the conflict, and completely ignores the hook (what is unique or unexpected). The main reason this was such a difficult exercise for me: I had multiple protagonists and multiple antagonists, multiple goals and very little conflict. This is what happens to me because I am a pantser and just wrote without any plan in my head or on paper.
I have finally found the core of my story. I focused on two protagonists and one antagonist. That focus made the goals and conflicts crystal clear. The revision of that story is far, far stronger, more compelling than the earlier draft.
Here’s my final sentence: In a retro-future America, a nightmare-haunted debutante must untangle lies from truth to stop an army of cloned assassins before they are unleashed by her power-hungry mother.
In the sentence above, there is a protagonist with a need, an antagonist with a need, a conflict, something at stake, and a twist. It tells you what my story is about. I hope it piques your interest.
For me, Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel and How to Write Sideways courses were exactly what I needed (see links to the courses and Holly’s website in the sidebar). You may find them equally valuable. If you do, fantastic! But please, feel free to search the web for other proponents of the sentence. You will find information on High Concept, logline, one sentence story summary, among many others.
Remember, I’m not saying every writer must write The Sentence before he or she can begin writing a story or novel. It’s a tool. But it’s the best writing tool I’ve got in my writing toolbox!!
Go to Holly Lisle’s web site (here) to sign up for one of her courses.