All right, fine—you’ll need more than two sentences, most likely. But the title of this post does actually have some merit, as I am in the process of finishing my second novel using an approach I like to call “The Two Sentence Method.”
There are already some spectacular methods out there for plotting and planning the “story arc” of a novel. But this post is going to get granular. How would you define your entire story in two sentences?
Dwight Swain, master writing teacher and author of Techniques for the Selling Writer and Creating Characters: How to Build Story People,wrote in the former that writing a novel (at least one that sells!) can be boiled down to two sentences.
Sure, you’ll need to extrapolate these into paragraphs, and then into chapters, etc., but the method he presented so many years ago worked exceptionally well for me.
The Two-Sentence Method
So what exactly is this magical methodology? Essentially,you’re going to isolate and define five specific elements of your story, using them in two sentences. These two sentences can then be fleshed out or rehashed and serve as the basis for your entire novel, or used as-is for the back-cover content.
Let’s get started.
Here are the five elements that will serve as the foundational characteristics of your novel—these will become your main “story question”:
1. Situation.What’s the main plot thread, or launching point? What’s the hook?
2. Character. Who is your main hero, or the person fighting “for good”? Your hero can be the obvious protagonist, or the twisted pseudo-maniacal-yet-endearing serial killer.
3. Objective:What is your main character fighting for?
4. Opponent: Who’s going to try to prevent them from achieving their goal(s)?
5. Disaster: What’s the big deal? Why should we care?
So, all you need to do is answer these questions in a brief,concise way (remember, we’re shooting for only two sentences!). Once you’ve answered them, it’s time to generate your Two Sentences. Here’s a “blank template” of these Two Sentences in action:
[Character] is in [some Situation], and they want a change. They are faced with [Objective], which would be great if accomplished, but [Opponent] stands in their way, leading to [Disaster].
As this concept, I believe, is best illustrated with an example, here is my Two Sentence description for my first book, The Golden Crystal:
1. Situation: Bryce’s (protagonist) mom is dying, and he gets a cool but dangerous job offer.
2. Character: Captain Bryce Reynolds.
3. Objective: Retrieve the mysterious artifact that his boss wants, and stay alive to save his mother.
4. Opponent: A crazy guy named Tanning Vilocek—rich, insane, and scary smart.
5. Disaster: Bryce’s mother will die, and all hell will break loose if he fails.
And the Two Sentences:
(Situation) When his failing mother is given less than a year to live without expensive treatment, (Character) Captain Bryce Reynolds (Objective) decides to take a high-paying job locating a mysterious and powerful artifact. But can he bring back the artifact and save his mother when (Opponent) an egomaniacal entrepreneur (Disaster) is hell-bent on finding the artifact as well—and destroying anyone in his way?
Pretty simple, right?
Again, first decide on your main idea: the main “goal” you or your protagonist will be hoping to achieve (regardless whether it’s a successful attempt). After you’ve figured out what you want to do, just plop in a character who seems to fit the bill, give him some serious and overwhelmingly difficult objectives (summed up in a few words, of course), and an opponent who’s willing to go to great lengths to prevent your protag from achieving said goal.
You don’t need to go in order
Some people prefer to brainstorm their character(s) first—that’s fine. When I started my second book, The Depths, I realized I wanted to have a female lead in it—even though I didn’t really know what she would be doing throughout the course of the story.You’ll inevitably give your hero certain quirks/characteristics that will bring him to life in your readers’ minds; use these same quirks to develop (flesh out) your Objective in the above outline. For example, you might have a female police officer who has an eidetic memory—later in the book, make sure to have her remember a specific element that’s key to determining who the perpetrator was. Only because of her unique ability is something like this possible…
As you can see, it doesn’t really matter in which order you decide on the five elements—as long as you have them. Once you’ve written them down, flesh out the Two Sentence Method using these elements to guide you.After that, you’ll have a much easier time working through the rest of the plot details. Every event and mini-situation in your novel will point your Character toward achieving his Objective. Your Opponent will stand in the way,and if he’s successful, Disaster will befall humanity. Try it out, and let us know in the comments what you think of the Two-Sentence Method for novel writing! If you have the guts for it, goahead and give us your own “Two Sentence” novel-in-a-nutshell. Everyone be nice—no harsh critiquing. We’re all trying to learn from one another ina friendly environment.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a premise sentence(s) prior to beginning a novel?