Story Question Part 1

When writing a book, authors are often encouraged to write a summary sentence or log line that captures the central conflict of their story. I believe this approach comes from screenwriters. There is usually a word count cap of around 25 words to this log line. I tend to expand it to 30 because I believe it’s sometimes necessary to include the historical time period, too.

Usually the character’s name isn’t used in this sentence. The protagonist is described with two words, one an adjective and the other a noun. The noun can be refer to the character’s job. Since I write historical romances, my characters don’t always have a job (unless she’s a governess or he’s a soldier), so I use nouns that refer to rank (earl, duchess) or who they are (widower, debutante.) The adjective is the dominant or first impression the character makes on the page. An arrogant duke is a different aristocratic hero than a scholarly duke.

Whoever the protagonist is, he wants something. This is his external goal. The important thing about this goal is it is easily defined. The reader will know if he has succeeded in achieving his desire.

World peace is not a good goal, no matter how desirable, because what does world peace mean? My definition of it may differ from yours. Does it mean no wars? What is a war? Something formally declared between nation states? Where does terrorism fit in this definition? And that doesn’t even bring up questions related to crime and oppression. World peace is too vague to be a story’s goal, but with a tight definitions, an author could write about an aspect of achieving it.

Just because a character wants something doesn’t mean he will get it. There are obstacles in his way, and these provide the conflict. The story question must also answer why not to the goal.

Lastly, the question must provide a reason for why the protagonist wants this goal. What is his motivation?

This is a lot of information to pack into a 25 word sentence. Fortunately, various templates have been developed to help the writer construct this sentence or question. After all, it will guide her throughout the writing and revision processes. One example of a template is:

A character (adjective noun) wants defined external goal because motivation but can’t because why not.

If you search the internet, you will find other log line or story question templates. Choose one (or several) to fill out for your story. Hone your words to sharply define what your book is about. At 25 words, you don’t have any words to waste on meandering.

As an example of a log line, here is the one for my first book: A reform-minded spinster unexpectedly inherits the fortune a charming wastrel believes belongs to him. With 14 words, the reader has the central conflict to my story The Spinster and the Wastrel. My title even came from this log line. I could add 3 more words to say In Regency England. The hero and heroine are described, what they each want (the fortune), the motivation (a reform-minded spinster needs money to doood; he believes the money belongs to him), and the conflict (they can’t both have the fortune.)

Once you have your log line, you will have an easy and quick answer to anyone who asks what your book is about. You will give enough to intrigue that they will want to know more. You will have hooked them.

Part 2 of this topic will go up on my blog next week.