DNA is a miraculous thing. It’s the microscopic genetic material that contains the blueprint for a life. A well-constructed sentence can do the same thing for your story. It can clearly communicate your story to your audience (and to you too). It can be the building block of all your marketing efforts as well.
As writers we are from time to time forced to face the dreaded question:
“So, what’s your story about?”
I don’t know about you, but for me, that question has often sent me into a cold sweat. I’ll mumble something about it being hard to explain and hope that satisfies their curiosity. Usually, that’s not good enough, so, I’ll hem and haw and mention something about “Die Hard meets Farscape.” The asker smiles politely while giving me a sideways glance.
But as a reformed shy writer, I’m learning to enjoy that question, and to field it with new gusto. Why? Because the act of condensing down your story into a bite size nugget, is an extremely valuable one, both in terms of storytelling and marketing. It helps you tell a better story and piques the interest of curious friends and hopefully agents and potential readers.
The benefits of the Microcosmic Sentence.
A solid 15 – 20 words that details the core drama of your story is what we’re looking for here. I have found that a strong sentence that summarizes your story is valuable in every step of the writing process. I’m focusing on the marketing aspect here, but briefly here are a few of the benefits of honing in on the core of your story with one sentence:
The one sentence summary, or Log Line as it’s known in screenwriting slang is an ever evolving, guiding compass. It’s the starting point of your journey and can work as an infinitely expandable map and plan. From one sentence you can expand your idea into a paragraph, page, a full treatment, and eventually a rough draft.
Here, that one sentence is a lighthouse that shows you the way through the tempestuous seas of drafting. That DNA sentence might change as you plow through the rough draft, and that’s totally fine. But more often than not, the sentence helps you stay on point and avoid unnecessary blind alleys, by knowing what the story is really about.
Here our sentence is an anchor that keeps you from going out with the tide of emotions. It’s really hard to kill your darlings. But it is completely necessary. With the anchor sentence in hand, you’ll know you are tossing the right baggage overboard.
Now here’s the bit I’m most concerned about today. By being able to pitch your story in a sentence, you are able to connect your story to the right audience. It only takes a few moments for us as readers to decide if we want to read something.
Consider skimming through Netflix on a comfy Friday evening at home. You skip through movie and television titles at break neck speed, stopping only at an interesting cover picture. Then you read the little blurb in the corner. Either it connects with you, you press play, or you say “meh” and keep looking.
This isn’t good or bad, it’s just how people decide how they want to spend their time. In the case of your book, the more concisely you can communicate the value and interest of your story, the faster you can connect with potential readers and also dismiss the ones who aren’t interested.
Going back to the analogy of the curious friend, which of these descriptions are stronger?
Hey Kent, what’s your story about?
(Mopping cold sweat with sleeve)
Response #1: Well, it’s kind of like a sci fi post apocalyptic sort of thing. You know, kind of like uh… well… you know… Total Recall I guess, but it’s also underground, but moving above ground, like exploring you know. Heh.
Response #2: In the last outpost of humanity after a nuclear holocaust, Olivia discovers a secret plot to engineer a catastrophe and risks everything to stop it.
In Response #2, that sentence is a little long, but still it cuts right to the heart of the story. And it accomplishes what a good DNA sentence should do.
The goals of a good DNA Sentence
- Spark interest and resonate with potential readers.
- Hone in on the core of the story.
- Introduce the main character and their problem.
- Create a clear image in the mind of reader (or listener).
How to do it
Okay, so we know now that it’s really good to find a strong sentence that tells our story. But just how exactly do you do it? Many novels are 80, 100, or 200 thousand words or more. Where do you even begin?
A good starting point is the protagonist. What’s their deal? What are they struggling against? Write it down with a much space as you need, a paragraph or even a whole page. Then start cutting.
Shoot for 15 words or less. You don’t want a huge run on sentence, but you do want to be as specific as possible.
Check out the New York Time Bestseller website. All of the descriptions are very solid (and very short) sentences. Browse through them for inspiration.
Kent Bridgeman is a freelance writer and marketing strategist who also writes short stories, screenplays and poetry. He helps his clients clarify their marketing messages and craft potent content. He lives in Chicago with his lovely fiancée D, and a grumpy parrot named Poncho. Check out his work at thewritejazz.com