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.
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 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. Simply put, she advised that the sentence included a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, and a hook. She recommended the sentence should be no more than thirty words in length. 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.
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 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 an army doctor. Now we give the army doctor a descriptive adjective. He’s a wounded army doctor. Great. Moving along.
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…
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 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 the 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.
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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Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all appear in her books. She writes action-filled science fiction with characters who discover their inner strength and determination and make courageous choices for themselves, their family, and their world.
In Book One of the Fellowship Dystopia, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship, and the deadly reality of rebellion. Book two, If I Should Die, continues Miranda’s story with heart-wrenching choices and page-turning action. If I Should Die will be published in May 2022.
She has had several children’s short stories published in regional and national magazines and co-authored The White Box series of novellas with Rob Chilson. Although collaborating with Mr. Chilson ruined her short story skills, she occasionally publishes flash fiction on her blog.
Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by doing housework or playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online at https://lynettemburrows.com, Facebook.com/LynetteMBurrowsAuthor, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.
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