How To Figure Out What Your Story Is About

A friend of mine recently asked me:

"I'm trying to whittle down my big, fat ideas to an arguable point, but how do you figure out what your point is?" 

That's a great question—and one that more people should be asking.

By the time you actually sit down and start writing—whether it’s a novel or a blog post—your head is so filled with thoughts and bits of dialogue and that old Swedish film that first inspired the idea and character traits and research that it can be very difficult to funnel all those elements into a succinct point.

What you have to do (and this takes practice, tears, and your choice of vice), is summarize your story idea with ONE sentence. Like those little blurbs in TV Guide (for all those under the age of 25, that was how people used to look up the date and time of television shows). I know you’re probably thinking that your story is too complex or too creative or too epic to be distilled into a single line, but you’re wrong.

If you can't explain it in one sentence, then you don't know what your story is about.

For example...  

Pretty Woman: A businessman falls in love with a prostitute he hires to be his date for the weekend.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: An archeologist is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.

Titanic: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love, must outwit her abusive fiancé, and find a way to survive aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.

Obviously there's more going on in each of these stories in terms of secondary plot or theme, but you don't need to worry about that right now.

The mistake that many people make is trying to squeeze the entire 120-page script, 70,000-word novel or 2,000-word blog post into this one line. Talk about a run-on sentence, phew!

What you need to do is make it interesting enough for a potential reader (social media follower, publisher, editor, mom, etc.) to be dying to read the whole thing. You want to make people say, "Wow. Tell me more." This is always an arduous task for writers, but once you whittle your story down to one line, you will know exactly what your story is about.

It's actually a great idea to come up with the logline (this one-sentence summary) before you start banging on the keyboard or chewing on the pen. That way, every time you wander off the path and lose sight of the point as you are writing, you just go back to your concise logline. Ah yes, that's right, a businessman falls in love with the hooker he hired. How the hell did he end up on the moon battling aliens??  

Crucial elements of a logline are:

  • main character(s) - who is the story about?
  • action - what does she want or need to do?
  • conflict - what or who is preventing her from achieving her goal?

An archeologist (main character) is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant (action, what the main character needs to do) before the Nazis do (conflict, what is preventing the protagonist from achieving his goal).

To get the hang of writing snappy loglines, read those short movie descriptions and TV Guide blurbs as often as you can. Or better yet, think of your favorite movies or books and sum them up yourself with one sentence.