|pinterest: the white sail's shaking|
On the one hand, our egos just love to be tickled by the question (if the asker actually cares; when they're only being polite, it isn't any fun at all): I don't know about you, but for me there's always a giddy burst of adrenaline that makes me grin and look altogether idiotic. Then I bumble around for a minute or so, trying to cram a 100,000+ word story into a respectable sentence, and in the end they put on their uncomprehending face and say, "Oh! That sounds interesting!" Which is nice of them, but I'm pretty sure my performance wouldn't garner any enthusiasm from an agent in a similar circumstance.
That reaction is, I think, fairly universal - and understandable, since if you have a particularly intricate story, it's no easy matter to convey its plot succinctly. But if you intend to sell your story, especially in a face-to-face setting, it becomes necessary to bring the bumbling up a notch or three. You're no longer trying to explain to your aunt what you do with your time; you're addressing an agent or a publisher who you kinda-sorta-really would like to take on your book. (Depending on your family, the latter might actually seem less daunting.) You have to condense your story, preferably into a pithy one-sentence summary that in film-speak is called the logline and in novel-writing the elevator-pitch.
When I'm not called upon to use them, I find this sort of thing enjoyable, so I was most pleased to be asked to read a slim book on the subject called Finding the Core of Your Story. It isn't a large treatise at all, and wonderfully to the point - and it has examples. I love examples. The author, Jordan Smith, is a filmmaker, but the subtitle of the book pretty well encapsulates its usefulness to all forms of story-telling: How to strengthen and sell your story in one essential sentence.
Smith coaches the reader through the ins and outs of logline-writing, starting with the basics of what a logline is and its importance, then moving on to the nuts and bolts. A second skim-through of the chapters brings out the key points - things we already know, hopefully, but which are irritatingly difficult to squeeze into a single sentence. Protagonist and goal; antagonist and goal; conflict; setting. There is also the usefulness of irony in conflict. His example here was a logline for Jurassic Park (which I've never watched), wherein a scientist who hates kids has to protect two children. I think this tends to denote humor, though that is not the case across the board: sometimes it merely emphasizes the tension.
One of the book's most helpful points, I thought, was Smith's chapter on finding the main thread of a story. Of all the hang-ups when it comes to explaining to a stranger what my story is about, this is the most common: trying to make sense out of the confounded thing. I've got subplots, and I've got themes, and I've got a half-dozen characters "what need keeping track of" - and it can be deuced tricky deciding what to say and what to leave unsaid. I haven't yet begun a synopsis or query for Tempus Regina, but I fought about six different versions of a logline for it after reading Finding the Core of Your Story and still don't like what I came up with.
"Well, bother it! There's a woman, and there's a watch, and there's Victorian England - and then there isn't Victorian England because there's time-traveling - and there's a dude and another dude and a third dude, but the third dude is less important than this other gal, and there's the White Demon (but you don't really need to know about him, so forget I said that), and there's alchemy and some STUFF and other STUFF and LEGENDS and the first woman's younger brother and then some DOOM and GLOOM and now you're going to represent me, right?"
All right, so that wasn't a serious attempt, but it's about how I feel. Pulling out the main thread is a difficult business, but I did feel that the process of narrowing down the loglines helped to clarify my own vision of the story. I don't know that I would try loglining a story before writing, as Smith suggests - my stories don't usually take on a proper scope until I've written three-fourths of the plot - but I have a feeling it will be helpful, not just in the querying process, but in the nearer work of editing. You've got to know what your story is primarily about before you can bolster the weak bits.
Of course, after you do all that you still have to memorize the logline and practice delivering it. I haven't worked up the courage for that last bit, though I did fiddle with a preliminary pitch for The White Sail's Shaking:
A bumbling young man's good intentions land him in the U.S. Navy, where his hopes of winning glory are turned inside out by the murder of a fellow officer - and the presence of the killer on board.
It is, at least, a start. And once you have the basic structure in mind, and the tips to help you along, it's actually quite enjoyable. You're inserting your monocle and peering at the story until you find its core (which helps with editing), then finding out how many ways you can succinctly express that core (which helps with pitching and marketing). It is a little daunting, but also, in an egotistical way, rather fun. And we are an egotistical bunch, aren't we?