I have recently started a new practice when I submit my stories for publication. It came from a requirement for FictionMagazines.com for the eRomance zine. In order to submit, I had to write a one-sentence synopsis of my story. I sweated this for quite some time, but finally came up with the following:
“A man falls in love with a ghost, but her dark, tortured past creates conflict.”
One of the most frightening aspects of this problem was that the story was only 3,000 words. How could I sum up something so short? That single sentence was .5% of my entire story!
I received an acceptance letter three days later. Since then, I have re-evaluated my apprehension. I now would advise any fiction writer–whether it be a short story or a novel–to try this simple exercise. In a sense, this is what we are taught in school. How many times has a teacher or professor told you to make sure you have a focused thesis? This sentence is a thesis statement for a piece of fiction. Just like an APA style paper, this sentence tells our reader where we want to go, but not how we got there. It helps to focus our thoughts, and identify elements that do not contribute to the story.
How, you may ask, is this any different from a “What if” statement? Many famous writers when writing about how writers write have given this advice for generating ideas. For instance, “What if penguins swam in lava instead of water?” (This is the title of next week’s post by the way.) A what if statement gives us a place to start, but a synopsis tells people where we went. Perhaps our penguins would be more motivated to exercise their flight muscles.
This can be done at the beginning of the writing, or the end. (The single-sentence synopsis, not exercising your flight muscles. For that, you should first consult a doctor and a book about physics.) Even poets could benefit greatly from this device. If you find yourself starting with “Roses are green, and prickly too” you may need more focus on your imagery and message. Instead, start with “Roses are like love because they are fragile, beautiful and painful.” (Actually, you may want to start somewhere else. That was pretty bad. Stay tuned for “Bad Poetry Days”.)
Of course, practice makes perfect. Try some of your favorite stories or books:”The Gift of the Magi”: Lack of communication between a couple somehow makes life better for a change. (Maybe that’s not a very good one.)
To Kill a Mockingbird: A gentle-country lawyer is forced to defend an indigent client against criminal charges and racism while also setting an example of right conduct for his children.
“The Finest Story Ever Told” (Kipling): A renowned author is amazed when a young man of limited writing talent presents a powerful story of warfare from his previous life.”
“The Raven”: A man is driven mad by sorrow, superstition, and an unexpected visitor. (Cocaine and absinthe may have also played a part, but it isn’t in the poem.)
“Death of a Spaceman” (Walter M. Miller): A dying astronaut reflects on his successes and follies in life, and shows us that self-doubt, loneliness, and love transcend time and space. (If you haven’t read this one, you have missed out on one of the best short stories ever.)
Once you get into the hang of it, it is fun and rewarding. Give it a shot with your own writing, and let me know if you find it a valuable tool. At the heart of the matter, all writing is the same: it is communication. We must encode not only words, but thoughts, feelings and opinions. The reader must then decode and interpret our intentions and thoughts. By concentrating our ideas into a single sentence, they will become far more potent, and be clearer when they are later watered down.
Just like orange juice.
Next week: “What if penguins swam in lava instead of water?”