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A Novel in One Sentence


The Snowflake Method, which I’m trying out as a basis for developing my current novel, is a series of 10 steps. It starts with the central idea of the novel and builds out from there. The first step is taking an hour or so to come up with a single sentence to summarize your novel.

Summarizing a novel in this way is not always easy, but if a novel has a clear focus and isn’t just a series of random events, then it can be done. I knew what my novel was about–what the main pattern of events was, who the protagonist was (generally), the setting, the goal, the main obstacles and complications–and didn’t have much trouble putting a sentence together. The thing is, summarizing it in this way, it didn’t sound focused at all. Was this an indication that the ideas behind the novel weren’t sound, or did it just mean I had to work harder to get the right sentence?

A sentence used to summarize a novel before writing it isn’t the same as a one-sentence pitch. A novel pitch has to offer something irresistable to the reader: it can be a juxtaposition, a come-on, or a situation, as examples.  Brad Beaulieu, a fellow Writers of the Future winner and Codex member whom I interviewed recently, sold his novel The Winds of Khalakovo by billing it as “Song of Ice and Fire meets Earthsea“–a successful pitch, but not a summary of the novel per se.

Not being sure where my problem lay, I explained the situation on Codex, the online writers group I run, where I can draw on the understanding of a great many talented people. Among a number of other useful commenters, Codexian Lon Prater offered something very close to the sentence I needed, stripping away several pieces of information that weren’t central to the story and coming up with a phrase that simultaneously explained the goal of the book, the protagonist’s intentions, and the problem. From that sentence I began to understand what was wrong with how I was approaching the initial sentence: I was trying to describe the book rather than explain what was central to the book, what William Goldman (who wrote The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and much else of note) calls the “spine” of the story.

Here’s my current version of that sentence, based on Lon’s:

An irresponsible musician leads a trio through war-ravaged 1950’s America to find his orphaned nephew and do the responsible thing for once in his life.

If you’re trying to come up with a single sentence to describe a novel, then, here’s an approach: write down all of the facts that seem to be important, then strike out every single one you could lose without losing the essential story. Would it have to be in that exact setting? If not, you probably don’t need to mention the setting. Does the protagonist have to have that specific background? Is such-and-such an event so important that the book couldn’t be written without it?

Whatever remains goes into your sentence.

The point of this exercise isn’t to just cross off the first step in a process: it’s to understand from the beginning what parts of your book are essential. The reason this is so powerful is that it gives you immediate knowledge of when something you’re writing needs to be there in some form or whether it can change and reminds you where you’re going. Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a writing project is for an unnecessary piece to be jettisoned and either forgotten or replaced with something else. But doing that with something central to the story–for instance, compromising your protagonist’s basic nature or violating a key promise to the reader–can do fatal damage.

On to step two, and meanwhile much of the materials for the novel is developing at a good pace. If you’re writing something at the moment too, then good luck to us both.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mark Dykeman  •  Jan 29, 2011 @12:00 pm

    I’ve heard of the Snowflake Method before and tried it on an idea that I had.

    Well, partially tried it. I think I got about as far as step 4 or 5. Interesting exercise!

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