If you’ve put away your mind map, take it out again. You’ll need it. This step is less like the traditional elevator pitch–you know, when you’re at a conference and you’re standing in an elevator with a literary agent, and you have twenty seconds (at most) to sell your story to them–and more like a summary for you to keep you on track.
But we’ll call it a pitch because it sounds more fun than a summary.
Years and years, nearly a decade, ago, I got serious about writing and purchased a new software called Snowflake Pro. You might even be familiar with the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. At a whopping $15–that was more than chump change back then for me as a first-year college student, and I debated for awhile before investing in it–I made what was probably the best decision for my writing career and purchased the software at the introductory rate. (Now, it’s $100, and it’s still well worth it.)
One of the first steps, besides writing your name and titling your project, is writing a one-sentence summary of the story. Here are the lecture notes in the software, which will be our goal by the end of this post.
I’ll let you read through them instead of reiterating what’s there. Before we can even get to the point where we’re ready to write that fifteen-to-twenty-word sentence, though, we need to clarify a few things, namely:
- What happens in the story?
- Who does it happen to?
- Who tells the story?
- What is the central conflict?
For that, you’ll need your mind map, so take that out and visualize the categories again. We’ll first figure out what happens in the story.
What are the major plot points you wrote down? What ties these together?
At the heart of it, is this a redemption story? A coming-of-age? A quest to find true love, a historical artifact, the secret of the universe?
For my NaNo novel this year, the heart of the story is rediscovering the self. Everything, every action, centers around this central idea. One character rediscovers themselves and has to come to terms with what has happened.
If you don’t see a central theme crop up in your brainstorm, think about it a little more. What’s the story you’re trying to tell? Conversely, why should people care about this story? What emotional heartstrings are you pulling? What adventure does your character go on?
If you want a popular example, let’s examine Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume everyone reading this has read that book. (If you haven’t, go read it. It’ll take you between three and six hours, depending on your reading speed.)
The core idea of this book is the classic good versus evil. It is absolutely an adventure story where one boy tries to vanquish an evil character. All we need right now, though, is the first part. Everything else revolves around this idea of good versus evil.
Good. You’ve got your central idea, and it’s time to move on. Next, you’ll ask who does all this happen to? You’re going to put a lot of strain on a character, so it’s important to be clear who we’re
torturing testing. In Harry Potter, it’s, you guessed it, Harry. He has support from his friends and teachers, but the action happens to Harry. In my NaNo novel this year, the action happens to the mother who abandoned her family.
This is less about the point-of-view character(s) and more about seeing what happens in your story and figuring out who is causing all the chaos (or, conversely, who is trying to organize all the chaos). Spend some time thinking about this because who you choose can drastically change the story. [You can choose your point-of-view (POV) character(s) at this time, but it’s not necessary.]
Say you’re writing a story about a kidnapping. You have a few options here. Does most of the action happen to:
- the person who has been kidnapped? For this, you’ll mostly be telling a suspense story, maybe of torture or attempted escape.
- the parents of the child who’s been kidnapped (or the spouse/friend/etc. of the person)? For this, you’ll tell of a marriage falling apart or of a desperate attempt of a person trying to find and rescue their loved one. [Genres: literary, women’s fiction]
- a detective? For this, you’ll be telling a mystery or procedural story. The detective or sleuth will work out the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the situation, while consoling loved ones and rescuing the kidnapped person in time. (Hopefully.)
If you’re not convinced this is still a point-of-view situation, take another well-known story The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway narrates the story; it’s in his point-of-view, but everything happens to Jay Gatz.
Try seeing your story from a number of perspectives and figure out which one sounds the most exciting to you.
The next step is determining who tells the story. This has a lot of overlap with the previous section, but you can have multiple people telling the story. In Harry Potter, the entire series with the exception of the first chapter of the first book, is told in Harry’s perspective. Harry tells his own story. That could be the same for you, or you can choose to have a different character tell the story (similar to The Great Gatsby), or you can have an omniscient narrator tell the story, someone who is completely removed from the scene. For my story, the people telling the story are the mother who ran away and her youngest daughter. It will alternate perspectives, weaving two threads of the same story that will hopefully come together in the end.
Who you choose to tell your story makes all the difference, so really take some time and think about this. The sage wisdom states that the person telling the story is the one who has the most to lose or gain, the person with the highest stakes. Who is that for your story?
I mentioned you can choose more than one person, but, unless you’re an experienced author who can handle several distinct voices, I’d limit it to two people. In the kidnapping example above, you can choose to go back and forth between the detective and the victim (to raise suspense) or you can switch between the detective and parents/loved ones (to focus on the relationship aspect).
If you still can’t decide who to choose, you can either pick the person who you feel you know the most about (from your mind dump) or you can select a person at random and change it later if necessary. The purpose of this part is to just have someone telling the story.
Finally, your central conflict of your main plot. You can (and should) have subplots if you’re writing a novel, but we’re going to just take a look at the main storyline here. What’s the big obstacle in your story? What’s stopping your character from reaching their goals right now? This should be something big enough to derail your character(s) and force them to take a new course of action. Growth is what we’re striving for.
There’s your central conflict, but you also have your initial conflict. What sets this story in motion? What’s the inciting incident and point of no return? When do they realize they have to change themselves and go on this “quest” (however you want to define this) to achieve their goals?
I’m still working on my central and inciting conflicts and making sure there are enough stakes raised to keep the story going, but I’ll share them with you when I’ve finished.
Finally, you’re ready to put all these elements together. One of my go-to people for anything literary is Nathan Bransford. I don’t know him in real life (I wish!), so I follow his blog and soak up his wisdom.
He designed an effective, if not basic, template to use when crafting your one-sentence summary, which looks something like:
When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.
Here was his (brilliant) example he wrote on his blog post.
Three kids trade a corndog (FLAVOR) for a spaceship, blast off into space (OPENING CONFLICT), accidentally break the universe (OBSTACLE), and have to find their way back home (QUEST).
It’s your turn. What your one-sentence pitch for NaNo this year? You can use the template or you can craft one your own.