Writing Your Key Sentence

Last post, we talked about the structure of essays and how to write more effective essays. But can you name your work’s key in a single sentence?

Writing Tip for Today: Whether you write essay, nonfiction or fiction, it’s important to be able to identify the main topic or shape of your work. Let’s discuss a method for arriving at this theme or story shape–identifying the key sentence that describes your project.

Twenty-five words or Less

When I ask my writing students to tell me the theme or main story line of their work in 25 words or fewer, many seem shocked. Some say it’s impossible. A novel or memoir is way too complicated, they say. How in the world could you squish a whole book into a sentence?

I once had the same reaction—only I worried about containing a short synopsis to one page. A sentence? Forget it! Then I attended a conference, where an extra-curricular session asked conferees to pitch their books to a panel—for a buy-in of five dollars. The winner would win the pot of money. So many writers stumbled to be specific enough and yet brief enough.

Yet the writers who could articulate their theme/storyline confidently and clearly in the one minute allowed usually won the contest. If you pitch your project to an agent or editor, (and most of us will at some point), you’ll need to show that not only do you know your story, you can communicate it clearly and with confidence.

A Formula

Another experiment I led with a class involved another type of pitch—for movies. Participants had to come up with a compelling pitch overnight and the next day, try to convince a script scout. My students could tell, just by listening to these pitches, which stories were viable and compelling.

I ran across a formula by former literary agent and author Nathan Bransford on how to write query letters. Yep, you’ll need to know how to do a query too. From querying to pitching, every writer should understand how this formula works. Here it is:

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

Use this little formula to better understand your writing and to interest editors and agents when you query.

Versatile and Brief

The purpose of any query or pitch is to interest an editor or agent. While some may say one sentence can’t possibly draw in interest, the only thing this sentence has to do is to make that person keep reading or wanting more.

You may have heard that all stories fall into one of about seven plots. To identify which of these your story most identifies, insert the most specific words possible into beginning of the formula. Name what starts it all, the journey or quest and the main obstacle your character must overcome. Then, identify what your protagonist wants most in terms of the emotions we all have: love, belonging, acceptance, revenge, etc. and make that the goal. This exercise can help you nail down the major theme and storyline—making it easier for you to stick with your plan and at some point, interest that agent or editor.

What part of this formula gives you the most trouble?


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.

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