Craft: Creating

Flowsnake, Reverse-Engineering Your Story

Let’s say you’ve written the first draft of a novel, and now an editor or agent asks you what it’s about—in 25 words or less. Maybe you can rattle that off after an hour. But, what if you don’t see how anyone could possibly summarize your heartbreaking work of staggering genius in only 25 words? Then what do you do?

Your task is this: You’ve got a novel of (typically) 100 scenes and 100,000 words, and you want to boil that down to one sentence of 25 words.

Here’s what you do, and it’s going to take some serious effort—about ten to fifteen hours. But the value to you will be immense. The process breaks down into 8 steps:

  1. Flip through your manuscript and summarize each scene in one sentence. Save this to a word processor document, and for the moment, let each sentence be in its own paragraph. This will take you five to ten hours, but at the end of it, you’ll have 100 sentences, each with maybe 20 words, so you’ve now summarized your manuscript in under 2000 words. This is progress.
  2. Make a copy of your list of scenes that you can edit. Keep the original in case you need to get back to it later. Scan through that list of scenes looking for sequences of scenes that form the large blocks of your story. Typically, each sequence of scenes will have somewhere between 2 and 7 scenes. On average, each will have about 5 scenes. This will take you about an hour, and at the end of it, you’ll have about 20 paragraphs, each with about 100 words. You haven’t reduced your word count, but you’ve now got a manageable set of chunks.
  3. Make a copy of your document that you can edit. Summarize each paragraph so that you capture the main gist but cut out any redundancy. Shoot to reduce each paragraph in half. This will also take you about an hour, and at the end of it, you’ll still have 20 paragraphs, but now they’re only about 50 words apiece, which gives you a total of 1000 words. This is only one percent of your original manuscript.
  4. Identify the Three-Act Structure of your story. Start by highlighting all the disasters in green. Then identify the most critical disasters in pink. These will be the major turning points of the story. The first typically happens about a quarter of the way into the story, and it marks the point at which your protagonist finally commits to the story. The second typically happens at about the midpoint, and it marks the point where the protagonist realizes that what they’ve been trying isn’t working, and they commit to a different approach. The third typically happens about three-quarters of the way into the story, and it marks the point where the protagonist commits to some definite step that will end the story, for good or ill. If you can’t identify these three disasters, then what? Is your story doomed? Not necessarily, but it means you don’t have a Three-Act Structure for your story. You can decide that the story is awesome and you’re going to live with it, or you can decide to add some disasters at suitable points to give your story a true Three-Act Structure. Your choice. This should take you about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on whether your major disasters are in place already.
  5. Divide your document into four Parts. Part 1 is everything up to and including the first disaster. Part 2 is everything up to and including the second disaster. Part 3 is everything up to and including the third disaster. Part 4 is everything after the third disaster. This should take you five minutes.
  6. Make a new copy of your document for further editing. Summarize everything in Part 1 into a single large paragraph of 50 to 100 words. Do this by focusing on the more important story threads. It’s okay to ignore less important story threads. You are trying to summarize only the main story here. You can also insert an initial paragraph that summarizes the backstory or the story world, but keep the length to somewhere betwee 50 and 100 words. You need to be disciplined here. Shorter is better, but absolutely no more than 100 words per paragraph. This step will take about an hour. When you’re done, you’ll have somewhere between one and two pages, adding up to 250 to 500 words.
  7. Make a new copy of your document for final editing. You are going to be brutal here. You have five paragraphs. The first is story setup. The next three summarize Parts 1, 2, and 3, each culminating in a major disaster/turning point. The last paragraph summarizes the ending—happy, sad, or bittersweet. Now reduce each of these to a single sentence. This will hurt if you overthink it. Don’t overthink it. Just cut to the bone. Cut each sentence down to absolutely no more than 25 words. No exceptions. If you do this fast, it’ll take you 15 minutes, and you should have about 100 words total in one paragraph. This is your one-paragraph summary.
  8. In the same document, at the bottom, write a single sentence of 25 words or less that summarizes only the first two sentences of your one-paragraph summary. Why are you summarizing only the first two sentences? Because the last three sentences contain spoilers. When an editor asks what your story’s about, they’re asking for the story setup—the part that identifies what your protagonist is trying to achieve. They’re not asking for how your protagonist achieves it.
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