Advice That Makes You Go Duh: Summing Up a Story

If you can’t sum up your story in one sentence, you don’t have a story so much as a bunch of shit that happened. It could be a long sentence, but you only get so many “ands” before people stop listening. If you can’t make someone interested in your idea within that framework, it’s time to take a step back and figure your shit out. It’s a lesson I learn fresh every time I start new story.

Often people start with a situation, but not knowing their character’s drives, they fail to turn that situation into something that moves the reader to give a damn. I’ve found summing up your story in as few words as possible is a great way to reveal this fundamental flaw.

Take, for example, my second novel. I started work on it recently, but it’s been stewing in my head for two years. I started with the premise: an alien is in jail and humans don’t know what to do with him. There’s enough to that situation to build conflict, but it doesn’t have an arc. Because the character arc was missing, it took a long time to figure out what the hell the story’s about.

Once I tried summing it up, essentially writing the back-matter for the novel even though it’s not fully written, I figured out what was missing. I started with this:

Freecloud is *gonzo science fiction about Duran, a humanoid who once held court on a hedonistic space station before he was arrested for piracy. He’s now stuck in solitary – drugged, deranged, and tormented because human law isn’t otherwise equipped to handle an alien who can walk through walls.

Once I’d finished, the question hit me: why should anyone care? What’s at stake? I had to take some time to think it through, and realized it was this:

But he has more to fear than jail, because he’s hidden a disturbing secret from his people – and they could destroy him to get it.

There’s the real story. It hints at the questions I hope keep the reader invested:

  1. What’s the secret and how did it put him in jail?
  2. What will happen to him if his secret gets out?

His story is about a common human fear: trading a terrible known for a terrifying unknown. A story has to be about being human to appeal to people – especially when aliens are involved. It also needs forward momentum, something that drives the character and leads him to make a choice. He has the drive. He wants out of his cell, but it means revealing something about himself that could get him dissected. There’s the choice.

But I’m not quite meeting my own challenge there. If I were to sum up Freecloud in one sentence, its Logline might be something like this:

Duran is an alien, kept in prison with drugs that drive him mad, and his only hope of rescue comes from his people, a collective entity whose contact could completely destroy his mind.

It might not have as much pizazz as the more fleshed-out version, but the short version isn’t the novel description – it’s a mission statement. That sentence is the story’s backbone, and now that it’s in place I have the confidence to pants the hell out of it (Outlines? Pffft!).

So, I posted the first chapter of Freecloud to Google Docs for anyone to peruse since it’s pretty much polished. I also decided to post the prologue to Vava Calypso, my first novel, since it’s the only part I don’t intend to rewrite. And now, I’d best be off to write the rest of it.

*Gonzo is a significant modifier because Hunter S. Thompson is a significant influence for this work.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.