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How to Write a Novel in Two Sentences

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?

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About Nick Thacker

Nick Thacker is a writer, blogger, and marketer who blogs about self-publishing at LiveHacked. He also has a completely free 20-week course that helps people write a novel, and has recently released his first thriller The Golden Crystal available on Amazon.

Comments

  1. thanks for posting. i needed this.

  2. Terrific points. I’m going to try this method on for size today!

  3. I love a ‘down and dirty’ direct approach. Another ‘printable’ post to save in my 3 ring binder of brilliant advice. Thanks!

  4. Nice break-down! That’s similar to one of the methods Holly Lisle uses, yet different enough to be helpful and give a new angle. I’m definitely going to work this into my “story organization” routine. Thanks!

  5. That’s brilliant! And when you’re done you already have a nice concise blurb. I’m going to go give it a try.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Nick!

  7. Thanks for all the great comments, guys and gals! It was truly a pleasure and an honor to write it for K.M.’s audience, and I’m glad you all were able to use it!

    Let me know if you have any questions about this approach too–I didn’t invent it, but I do use it!

    Thanks,
    Nick

  8. Great breakdown, thanks for sharing this!

  9. This is a great way to think about an opening to a query, too. The only thing I’d change is turn “Who’s going to try to prevent…” to “WHAT will stand in their way.” The opponent is often something other than a person: it could be anything from weather/terrain to an amophous (and non-evil) bureaucracy.

    In the book I’m still raving about, The Book Thief, the opponent is the neighbors and the state. But their neighbors are also sources of kindness. It makes for a very complicated opponent!

  10. Thanks, this was helpful. I can never quite nail this stuff down, so I feel like if I keep reading new perspectives on it, one of them will click!

  11. Thanks for the great post, London–and that’s a great idea.

    I’ll go back through my own writings and see how I might incorporate that question!

    Never heard of the book, either–but I’ll check it out!

  12. I generally outline my story ideas like that… in my head at least, if not on paper.. :D

    thanks for posting, Nick.

  13. Great tips. I’m saving this in my pitch examples file. This might really help me figure out my pitch better. Thanks so much.

  14. Happiness! This post comes just in time for me to refine my elevator speech @ NESCBWI. Thank you. :)

  15. I really appreciate this way of doingiy, I did for the first time try to write a few sentences of a description, but it was difficult and this really helped me to see how it works and how to do it better! Thanks!

  16. I already did it AND it rocks! Thanks so much!

    xoxo

    M.

  17. Great post.

  18. Thanks Traci, Samantha, Natalie, Gideon, and Melissa!

    Meryl, I’m glad you found success with the method! If you’re interested in reading more about it, Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer is where I originally heard of this. It’s written very concisely, to-the-point, and without frills.

    Thanks for reading, and commenting! If anyone out there wants to share their “Two Sentences,” leave it in the comments!

    Nick

  19. I just took some time out of my writing day to do this and it really helped clarify a few things. Trying to break it down into just two sentences (can they be run-on?) is difficult, but so very crucial to the process. Thanks for the reminder, now back to work!

  20. This is so helpful. You don’t even know. *I am patting you on the back now*

  21. OMG.

    I have never heard of “The Golden Crystal” before, and never heard of Nick Thacker before.

    But we must have an amazingly similar taste in character names, because the name of one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, “Ashburn”, is Bryce Reynolds. And I am so, so attached to that name, or I would change it in a heartbeat.

    Our books are even in the same genre. Thriller.

    I’m stunned, really. What do I do now? I can’t change my character’s name, that’s who he IS! I suppose I must, if Mr. Thacker objects. :( *sigh*

  22. @Julia: Not to worry. Character names aren’t copyrighted. The only time you’re going to get into trouble for using the same character name as another author is if that name is exceedingly well known (e.g., Harry Potter or Jack Ryan). And, even then, the problem is going to be more along the lines of reader confusion. I don’t believe Nick’s book is published yet (correct me if I’m wrong, Nick), so perhaps this should just be a case of whoever makes the NYT bestseller first. ;)

  23. *Whew* :) Thank you, K.M!

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Haha, @Julia–thanks for the email and your respectful demeanor. To reiterate what K.M. said, character names aren’t copyrighted, and my book isn’t published yet (waiting on money for editing!).

    @MTeacress: thanks for the pat on the back. It felt good!

    @vdemetros: I’m really glad you found it helpful! If you really want to take your book/planning to the next level, go check out Dwight Swain–you can read about this method from the master himself!

    Thanks, everyone, for reading it–and a HUGE thanks to K.M. for having me! It’s been a true pleasure, and I hope to see you all around here and my own site soon!
    Nick

  26. Hi Nick,

    A different and fun approach, I like it :)

    Kind Regards
    Laura

  27. I like this idea. Anything that helps me put into words what my novel is about, in shorter sentences is a great idea.

  28. Great post. I’ve been doing something similar with my wip and am finding it hard, so I’m looking for some help.

    I basically have two main characters. The book is written in 3rd person but from both view points. Each have separate goals, but they come together in the end to resolve the main conflict.

    What is the trick to incorporating both viewpoints within two sentences without it becoming a horrifying mess?

    Secondly, it is the first of a trilogy – I’m assuming the best way to use the process is to focus on each book on their own. What if that first book is mostly relationship building (with external conflict tossed in for the climax) in order to solidify the two MC’s actions over the next two books? How does that play into the objective portion? Is the objective to become a team or is it to fight against the antagonist who only appears at the climax and is completely unknown to one of the MC’s.

    Perhaps this is tricky to answer without more concrete details, but would just like to know if you’ve ever come across something similar.

    Thanks!!!

  29. I’m a Swain fan from way back.

  30. That’s pretty cool and useful :D

  31. Excellent – like all the best advice, so simple, so obvious, why did I never think of it before…

  32. @ LK & Donna;

    Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting! Hope to see you around!

  33. @PBuff: Hmm, I’m not sure–that’s a great question (or questionS!)

    First, I’m not a pro–so this is just my opinion–but I’m getting the feeling that the first of the trilogy, since it’s going to be mostly relationship-building, might fall into the category of “literary fiction?” If so, it might be best to declare the “villain” as an internal or undefined emotive mechanism of sorts…

    Second, to “intertwine” the two MCs’ stories, try writing two “two-sentence” approaches–who cares if they’re separate? At this point, the “two sentence” approach is to help YOU, not look perfect on a back cover!

    As you get the storyline down pat, and everything starts meshing together, then you can worry about what the overarching theme, plot device, and “main” MC will be–or not!

    Hope this helps at least a little–thanks for commenting!
    Nick

  34. I kind of had to do the reverse for a class assignment for George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss.
    I thought it was crazy then, but it is fantastic how it can work for a novel-writing-process. Thank you. I am going to try it.

  35. Ok, I’m a bit late to this game, I just read this article in response to Nick’s more recent post, but this was too good not to try out.

    Here is my two-sentance WIP.

    When Alana Hamtinh discovers that she is the crown princess, destined and required to rule the known galaxy, she leaves her home-world of Kanis for the bright lights of Thallius. But when a scheming senator organises for her to be taken by people trafficers and enslaved on a planet outside the reach of the empire, she will need to find a destiny even greater than the one she has inherited.

  36. Very interesting! I find your post really useful as I am highly disorganized when I write for my book. I’ll try my best to follow these tips ,even though reducing everything to two sentences is going to be quite hard. It takes skills!

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