What’s Your Novel About?

Whether you’re in a checkout line, at the ball game or a writing conference, people ask, “What’s your novel about?” You’ve learned enough to know one thing: When people ask–and they always do–the writer had better be able to give a brief, exciting and concise answer. How do you arrive at that answer?
Writing Tip for Today: Especially as you draft a novel, the answer to “what it’s about” can be elusive. You’re discovering along with your character, especially if you don’t tend to plot or outline in advance. And the last thing you want to say is, “Well, it’s about a lot of things.” Here are some ways to help you formulate the crucial “one line” pitch.

  • Think in terms of a tripod: Your character (first leg) has a want or goal (second leg) but encounters conflict or obstacles (third leg).
  • If you’re having trouble expressing this central story line, ask yourself, “If my character doesn’t achieve the goal, so what? If the answer isn’t something dire, consider increasing the stakes of the novel. High stakes generate interest.
  • Use those one sentence TV guide and movie blurbs to help you identify the central story.
  • Back cover or book jacket blurbs can sometimes help, but concentrate on the first few and last few sentences.
  • Try thinking of your story in terms of an adage, fairy tale or other classic story. It’s probably true that there are only a few really different stories and all others are the endless variations of those few.
  • If your story feels too similar to others out there, try turning the character, the situation or the goal on its head. The reluctant or accidental hero, an unexpected setting or an uncommon goal might help your story stand out.
  • Ask yourself “What if?”
  • Instead of grinding out that 1-2 page synopsis, crafting a separate query letter and cover letter, work on creating a 100-150 word summary (synopsis), a back cover blurb (can be more of a teaser) and the one or two sentence pitch.

Try This! Write a 150 word summary of your novel as it is today. Name the main character, setting/time, goal and obstacle(s) in the first couple of sentences. Do not include subplots, other viewpoint characters or minor details.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “What’s Your Novel About?

  1. I hate being asked that question, but I really must get better at it if I wish to sell my work better. (And who else is going to sell my work if not me.)

    Mind if I take a crack at it with my current WIP?

    Nineteen-year-old Nita lost her father to cancer two years before and since then she has experienced growing impatience with her church full of people who talk but don’t do until one Sunday she starts a scandal of gossip by leaving church in the middle of service to invite the drunk down the street to church. Many are furious, and Nita learns much about human nature as well as her own self-righteous pride.

    I would love to hear what you think!

  2. Linda here: Rebecca, you’re courageous to put up your summary for all to see. Nita sounds like a fascinating character and I like that she’s a doer. I’m not quite getting the connection between losing her dad and the impatience. Did Dad not get any support during his illness? I’d strengthen that connection. So her goal is to convince the church to reach out to the unpleasant people they don’t want to associate with? After she runs out to invite the drunk to church, I’d stiffen the obstacle (going from furious churchmembers to completely ignoring her or worse) and put in Rebecca “must,” “battles” “overcomes” or something similar to show us what she overcomes to win the goal. Good start, though! Keep working on it! ~Linda

  3. You really hit on an important point, and one that often gets over looked. I’ve stumbled my way through this questions myself on more than one occasion until I did as you suggested and wrote it down. Once I took the time to work out how I would answer “What’s your book about?’ it became much easier and certainly not as lame as trying to explain parts of the plot etc. (Which often happens)

  4. So true, Tracy! One of the most common complaints I hear from agents is that writers don’t have a good enough handle on the storyline. It’s not sufficient to allow your character to wander around in your novel. Think in terms of goals and obstacles. ~Linda

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