When writing a novel, it’s easy to get swept up in the details. There are so many details, and you’re passionate about every one of them. But for the sake of querying, for the sake of discussion, and for the sake of your own clarity, it’s important to be able to whittle down your entire novel into a few sentences.
It’s common to hear people say you should be able to summarize the book in a single sentence, or be able to write a one-page synopsis. Frankly, you should be able to do all of these things by the time your novel is done, but we’re going to focus on the three-sentence structure for the time being because that’s what helped me the most in gaining clarity on my stories.
What is the three-sentence synopsis?
What it is, is basically a sales pitch. Yeah, I know. Made you gag a little, didn’t I? Thing is, people write sales pitches for a reason: to set the hook before the other person has a chance to drift. And if you intend to sell this thing, a hook is precisely what you need.
If you came to my front door selling a vacuum, and started telling me about the chargeable battery and the removable canister and the one-year-warranty, I’m going to start thinking about how I still haven’t fed the dog and you’re going to lose me.
If you come to my door and tell me you have a full-sized, no-mess, cordless vacuum that swivels, well… I might just throw the dog that sandwich I was eating and listen up. Or maybe that’s just the mom in me.
Point is, selling something is far more effective when you can summarize why your product is amazing right off the bat. Think on the story you’re working on now, or that you most recently finished. What’s it about?
“It’s about an old woman who decides to go back to college and when she gets there she finds out that college has changed since her day and they all use magic now. So she has to learn magic from scratch and while doing that, she finds out that each university has their own brand of magic and the brand she’s using is drawn off of an imprisoned priestess in the basement. But she knows from stories she heard as a kid that that’s a bad idea so now…”
You’ve lost me. My dog is drooling on my foot and I’ve got a new vacuum to try out.
A three sentence synopsis contains the heartbeat of your story. It is that pulse that readers want to feel. It’s the pulse that will keep your book alive.
How to Write a Story Pitch
I want to be clear about something, I’m teaching you the three-sentence pitch to benefit you. We could discuss more aspects of it, like how to make it unique and compelling and make an agent say, “I want to know more!” But I want you to be able to pare the whole thing down so you can be ultra clear with yourself on what your story’s about. You may be wondering why that’s important, because you already know what the story’s about, right? You sure do. Problem is, you know way too much about it.
To you, your story is about many things. But writing, as opposed to story, is about precision. Our job as writers is to translate a story into writing, and to do it well. Which is harder than it sounds.
A story is first and foremost about a character. It’s about a person with struggles and feelings and hopes. It’s about the turmoil this person goes through. The futuristic setting you designed, the magic system you built, the asteroid that’s barreling toward the planet, are all backseat details. They’re beautiful and creative and the whole reason we love science fiction and fantasy, and they definitely matter to the story, but readers read to experience emotion. They read to connect with characters they relate to. That’s what your pitch needs to focus on.
Consider these questions:
- Who was your character before the story began? Like real people, they should have a past, deep-rooted desires, and beliefs that won’t be easily changed.
- What’s the initial situation that starts them on their journey? More accurately, what did they screw up to get where they are? The inciting incident is not always the fault of the main character, but we are writing about flawed people and there are reasons they’ve found themselves in the situation they’re in.
- What’s the main problem the character is facing throughout the story? Just the main problem, not the subplots.
- What’s at stake? What is the character going to lose if they fail? What does the character have to face to overcome this?
The answers to these questions will comprise the meat of your pitch. We’ll simmer down the word count, but that ^^ is what your story is about at its core.
Composing Your Three Sentences
You’re going to introduce your character and tell us who they are (whether that’s their job, or how they define themselves, or their relation to their community… whatever is most relevant), and what situation they’ve found themselves in. For our purposes here, it’s okay if your sentences are lengthy.
A retired teacher, Maude goes back to school for herbalism, only to learn she’s out of her league as modern universities rely on magic.
You’re going to tell us how the inciting incident turns into the main plot problem. Transition us from “this is Maude” to “what’s gone wrong,” and finish up by telling us why it’s a dire predicament.
Maude finds out magic is only possible by the enslavement of an ancient priestess, and because of her grandmother’s stories, she knows this is dangerous and decides she must free the priestess.
Transition us yet again into the book’s mortal trial. Tell us what’s at stake. What is the main character going to lose if they fail?
Inexperienced and underestimated, Maude must tap into the magic that powers the school in order to go up against the Matrons and protect the students from the same wrath that has haunted her family for generations.
Do you notice how what’s at stake is directly related to Maude and her past? It isn’t just about the university, or the friendships she makes there, it’s about the tales she heard as a kid, that terrified her and gave her the utmost respect for the power of a priestess–something the Matrons are clearly lacking.
Notice how these sentences give you a whiff of the deeper story elements… Why did Maude choose an all-women college? Why did she feel the need to study herbalism in the first place? How is her career as a teacher relevant? What kind of beliefs, desires, and flaws are going to come into play here?
When to Write Your Three Sentences
Whether the three sentences are useful before you write the book or after will depend on what kind of writer you are. If you are the type to sling words without knowing where you’re going and only deciding on your destination after you’ve finished your first draft, then you may need to wait until after draft one to comprise the pitch. And please note again, I call it a “pitch” for simplicity and understanding. You could use these sentences to pitch an agent or editor–they may need a little extra cleaning up for that–but I want you to do this so you can get clear on exactly what your story is about. That’s something every successful writer should be able to do.
If you’re a deep planner and like to outline before you set foot in your world, write the pitch before you start the first draft. Some people draft by creating a single sentence synopsis, growing it into a three sentence synopsis, growing that into a one page synopsis, growing that into full scenes, and so on. Regardless of how you write, remember that the story will change along the way and while that can be daunting in the moment, it’s how dynamic stories are built.
If you find yourself unable to describe your whole story in three sentences, you likely don’t have as much control over it as you think you do. This practice serves to fish out issues of over-writing, unclear plot lines, and aimless characters.
What to Do if You Can't Complete This Exercise
First: take a deep breath. I know, when you find out you might have an entrenched error on your hands it can suck the wind out of your sails pretty quick. Always keep in the forefront of your mind that first drafts are meant to suck, past novels were meant for learning, and future stories will still serve as training experiences no matter how long you’ve been doing it. You will never be a perfect writer, and that’s okay because perfect is boring.
The next thing you should do is look at which of the three sentences you’re having trouble completing. Is your issue in character motivation, plot, or conflict? Go back to the area where I listed questions to consider and see where you might be hung up. Sometimes, the problem is that your character lacks real challenge. Read about effective antagonists in my blog post, The Bad Guy: Writing to Challenge Your Hero.
Keep digging deeper until you get to the base thread of your story. It’s there. It might just be buried under all the extra stuff you created along the way. If it’s disjointed, establishing your three sentences should help you smooth it out.
If you’re still having problems, this is something we can help you with. At Conquer Books, we coach writers at varying points of the writing journey and strive to get them out the other side with know-how on their belt.
Once you’re finished, having these three lines look back at you from their white page is uplifting. You can see your whole story, right there in front of you, small enough to grasp.
If you’re still having problems, this is something we can help you with. At Conquer Books, we coach writers at varying points of the writing journey and get them out the other side with know-how on their belt. Take a moment to learn how a book coach can help you finish your book.
Until then, may your words pour forth abundantly.