When I say ‘the sentence’ to another writer they usually nod gravely in acknowledgement or scowl remembering the last time they grappled with this particular writing beast.
The sentence is the hardest form of synopsis. It is your entire novel boiled down to a single sentence – and no Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn style sentence that flows on like the river for one and a half pages – fifty words or less.
Difficult though this may be, make a good sentence and you have the perfect answer to when you are asked ‘What is your book about?”. Trust me, that person asking, they don’t want you to ramble on about how the politics of your Dragonmeet are carried out, or in-depth details about your magical system. What they want to hear is “In a world where the gods predetermine absolutely every moment of your life, a young woman from another world joins a group of dissidents in a fight against the gods for freedom.”
That’s the sentence I just tapped out for Fanta’s story. It isn’t the tightest sentence, a little tweaking of words will probably occur between now and approaching agents, but I need to know this sentence so if by some crazy, random happenstance I come face to face with an agent or publisher (oh I can dream, can’t I?) I can quickly sum up my novel and hopefully garner interest.
The sentence needs a few things to work.
You need to make your setting clear. Obviously mine is a fantasy world as implied by ‘in a world where the gods predetermine absolutely every moment of your life’. Of course, you don’t need to be as blatant as I am. If your world is just our normal, modern one you can make that obvious by mentioning a job or a landmark or something else that pertains to your story that will tip the reader/listener of your sentence off as to where the story is set.
You need to mention your protagonist. You don’t need to tell their entire back story but it’s usually good to throw in a powerful adjective and maybe a job or descriptive to give people a little more information about your protagonist. I started out with ‘young woman’ because that’s what Fanta is, a 22 year old woman, but you aren’t necessarily compelled to find out more about her by simply reading young woman. Young, scantily clad woman draws some attention, not the right attention but you get the idea. What you need is something pivotal to who she is or the problem she is facing (apart from the fact she’s about to fight the gods themselves). Fanta is struggling with the decision to get married to her live-in boyfriend, who she doesn’t know what to feel about anymore, so ‘romantically confused young woman’ could be good, but that can imply lots of different things. In the end I decided the fact she isn’t from this world is a compelling piece of information.
The absolute most important thing for your sentence is your main conflict. Clearly for this tale that is the war with the gods over the right to choose how to live their own lives with the antagonist of the tale being the gods themselves.
Usually the writer should start with the sentence and use it as a tool to keep their story on track. I didn’t. Didn’t with Storybook Perfect(to be honest didn’t even know its importance back when I started my first novel) and didn’t with Fanta’s Story. Breaking the rules! This worked in my favour in this particular case because I when I became sick a few weeks back I stopped writing – it was hard enough keeping up with commenting and the blog – and when I tried to start again I felt disconnected from the narrative. So I wrote my sentence to try and get myself back in the groove. It worked, because now the first draft is finished. Hopefully now the sentence will help keep me in check during my revision as well.