The Sentence: One Plotting Tool for All

Photograph close up of an Olympia typewriter with a page in it upon which are the words "Write Something."

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help all writers, regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. SwainDonald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of what the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk: the story sentence.

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now.

The sentence is closer to a log line. But it’s not that either. It isn’t for marketing. It isn’t for your readers to understand. 

It’s a plotting tool, a sentence meant to help you focus your story. Maybe you’re like I was. You’ve heard writers are supposed to boil their story down to one sentence but you can’t figure out how to do it.

I did not get it until I took Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise A Novel” course. With her more detailed class instructions, I finally understood. Since then, I’ve studied how others use the story sentence and eventually made it my own. 

The Sentence tells the story in a single sentence comprising a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, a setting, and a hook. Holly recommends The Sentence be only 30 words long. (Holly teaches a lot more about The Sentence. Take one of her courses. You won’t regret it. )

As a writer, 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 that creates 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.

What about a Series?

Writing a long complicated series doesn’t mean you cannot construct a story sentence. A series should have scope, but it should still tell a story with a primary protagonist, a primary antagonist, a primary conflict, etc. It still needs the focus The Sentence gives you. And each book of the series should have The Sentence, too.

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.

I break down the sentence into parts:

An [adjective] [focal character] needs [to do something] for [an important personal reason] but [an adjective] [obstacle] needs [something] which [verb of conflict or stakes].

This is both easier and harder than it looks. Those of you who are grammar nerds may find my next statement objectionable. Don’t worry about grammar when you construct the story sentence. This isn’t about making a well-constructed sentence. It’s about getting the essence of your story down.

Let’s look at the parts of that sentence more closely.

The Character

The first noun, the character, is usually your protagonist, primary, or focal character. A name at this point doesn’t help you. Instead of a name, identify your character by her predominate character trait, job or vocation, or role in the story. This is a place where clichés are okay, but if you can be more specific and unusual, that’s better. The adjective you choose to enhance your character should describe a small part of what makes your character unusual. 

Let’s say we have a doctor.

Photograph of a doctor in blue scrubs and mask with a stethoscope around his neck and giving us a thumbs up signal

More specifically, let’s make him an army doctor. Now we give the army doctor a descriptive adjective. He’s a wounded army doctor. Great. Moving along.

The Need

What does our army doctor need? Hmm, we’ll say he’s returning to civilian life. Okay. That’s pretty ordinary. Let’s make that more specific. He’s searching for a flat in London. Better. Maybe he’s discovered that returning to civilian life isn’t easy. How can we reduce that to convey stronger feelings? 

He’s unfulfilled by civilian life. Okay. That implies he needs to be fulfilled somehow. We keep working on this until we have a better idea of what his need is. Maybe he needs to overcome PTSD. Wait, you say. That’s not terribly original. Remember, the sentence is to help you focus your story, not necessarily to show all the lovely details that make your story unique. 

A wounded army doctor unfulfilled by civilian life must overcome his PTSD.

To Do What?

All right, now we need to figure out what motivates him (at least in a broad sense) to overcome his PTSD. This may be where another character comes in. Don’t name the character, give him a descriptive adjective and noun. So our wounded army doctor has an eccentric flatmate. Maybe his eccentric flatmate has gotten into some kind of trouble and only the doctor can save his flatmate. 

A wounded army doctor unfulfilled by civilian life must overcome his PTSD to save his eccentric flatmate.

The Obstacle

The obstacle is a person, place, or thing that may cause the focal character to fail. The weather, the geography, internal flaws, or even a culture can be an obstacle. Often the obstacle is the antagonist and actively keeps your focal character from attaining her goal. In the wounded army doctor story, who or what is the obstacle? 

When searching for the obstacle, ask yourself questions. Why can’t the army doctor swoop in and save his flatmate? Why would the flatmate need his life saved? Perhaps the eccentric flatmate is a brilliant private detective. What if that detective’s nemesis is a criminal genius? What if the criminal genius has sprung a trap, endangering the life of the detective? What if the doctor is the only one who knows about the trap?

A wounded army doctor unfulfilled by civilian life must overcome his PTSD to unravel clues left by a criminal genius to save his eccentric flatmate’s life and find fulfillment as a detective. 

Did you guess this thirty-two-word sentence is about Sherlock, the British television series? Is it a well-written sentence? No. Does it focus the story’s plot? Yes. It actually shifts the focus away from Sherlock as the focal character and makes it more about Doctor Watson. That’s good news if our idea was to have Dr. Watson be the protagonist. If we didn’t mean to make the story about Dr. Watson, we can try again. 

Photo of the top of a blank spiral notebook page and a half-dozen crumpled up pages

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.

My enthusiasm for this tool is boundless because it made an enormous difference in my writing. It may be helpful to you, too.

I wrote The Sentence for My Soul to Keep after I’d finished the first draft. It took many, many attempts to write The Sentence.

Compare my before Holly’s courses sentence to my attempts at The Sentence as I worked through her How to Revise Your Novel course.

My very first story sentence I created long before I’d taken Holly’s course. 

It’s the Terminator meets Thelma and Louise in the world of the Handmaiden’s Tale. 

Sound good? I thought so. 

What’s Wrong with the First Before

This works as a sort of elevator pitch in that it uses familiar movies in two particular genres and conveys the tone and a general idea of the story. But who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What’s the conflict? Yeah, it does’t convey any of that. So as a guide to revising my story, it kind of sucked. 

The next thing I wrote was more like a blurb. 

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. (119 words).

What’s Wrong with the Working Before

First, it is long, and that makes it difficult to use as a guide. It gives far too much detail about the world. It identifies two protagonists, but gives you only vague suggestions of the goals, conflict, and antagonist. It leaves questions in the reader’s mind all right, too many questions.

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’s Wrong with the First Attempt

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). 

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.

My finished sentence is not exactly the same as my finished novel. My story ended up being set in an alternate history America. And that’s okay. This one served me well as I revised my book.

The sentence is a tool. It is not static or unchangeable. If you change your mind at any stage of the writing process, you can pause and rewrite the sentence. Change the protagonist or obstacle or the whole thing. Or you can carry on writing your new story to the end. Rewrite the sentence before you revise your story. It will help you through the revision process.

Must you use a story sentence? Nope. You can outline or pants all the way through a story. Depending on your understanding and internalization of how to write a story, pantsing may mean you have a lot of revision to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you are a clean writer, you may need only minor revisions. It’s a matter of what you, as a writer, need to do in order to be your most efficient and effective storytelling self.

As a semi-reformed pantser, I love the story sentence. It helps me keep the story focused without telling a thing about the specific path the story will take. Is the sentence for you? Only you can decide that.

Some writers start with little more than a glimmer of an idea. Others use copious notes and detailed outlines before they write a word. There are writers who write the end first and writers who write random scenes that they can somehow knit together later in a different order. Choose the tools and methods and steps that make sense to you. The how you write should be unique to you. Whether you rely on spontaneity or use detailed outlines, or even use the premise method, a tool like the sentence will help you start but will vanish out of sight as soon as you get your process ignited.

Once you know your sentence, you can move on to the next phase of story development. For me, that’s developing my general story arc based on that sentence. But that’s for next month’s post.

Have you used The Sentence to guide your writing?

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This post originally appeared and remains on this site as “The Best Writer’s Tool.” I improved upon that post and it appeared on the Writers In the Storm Blog as “One Plotting Tool for All.” This post is a blending of what readers said were the best parts of those two posts. I hope you found it helpful.

Image Credits

Top image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

Second image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay

Third image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

Final image  by Rahmat Damanik from Pixabay

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