How to Write a Storyline


How to write a storyline (one-sentence description)

If your book/story promotion efforts really suck, or are less effective than you like, maybe you should learn to write a good storyline, or short description, of your work. It is a good marketing tool, because you can sum up your book/story in 25 words or less, instead of in 300 words or more.

Randy Ingermanson, in the book ‘Writing Fiction for Dummies’ and on his Snowflake Method web site, teaches how to write a storyline. It’s covered in Chapter 8 of the book, and he gives explicit instructions on how to do it.

You may want to write your storyline in your Scrivener or other program that will count up the words for you— you want to know how many words your storyline is running so you can more easily edit it down. When you get down to one or more good storylines, , do PRINT IT OUT, because your computer might die and take your work with it. 

Focus your storyline on ONE important character— either your Lead or another— and mention that character briefly. In other words, don’t mention your character’s first, middle and last names, his exact age, his profession, and the color of his hair in the storyline. ‘A trapeze artist,’ ‘a crooked lawyer,’ or ‘a talking cat’ are better than some more lengthy mention.

Write about only ONE thread of the story— the most important one or the most interesting one. Don’t write something so convoluted it takes you 500 words just to mention it. 

Be SPECIFIC. Using abstract or general terms puts your readers to sleep, it doesn’t excite them into wanting to buy your book. 

Some sample storylines Ingermanson gives:

“A young English nurse searches for the way back home after time-traveling from 1945 to 1743 Scotland.” (Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.)

“A hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.” (The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.)

“A Moscow homicide detective investigates a bizarre triple murder and runs afoul of the KGB and FBI.” (Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith.)

My take on this— a well-written and SPECIFIC storyline would be a great tool for writers who write book promo after book promo without mentioning a character or anything specific, and who thus don’t find any potential readers for their book.

For many of us, a first attempt at a storyline may run very long— some people can’t describe their book in less than 150 or 300 words. Here is how I would fix that:

Write 3 versions, perhaps mentioning a different character and a different part of the plot in each one. If you end up with 3 versions that are each way to long, here is how to pare it down:

PRINT OUT your draft, or copy it by hand onto lined paper. Get a group of colored pencils or pens. Use a red (or gray) pencil to underline any word that might be too non-specific or bland. Use a blue or purple pencil to underline words or phrases that you find compelling and specific. Get a green pencil to underline action words. When you’ve marked up your sheet, you may find some words you can lose— and other words you might hang on to. 

Write storylines for books you read, as a way of improving your skill. For example: (Harry Potter series: A defeated Dark Lord is hindered in his attempt to regain his power by a boy wizard.)

DON’T expect a critique partner or beta reader to do the work of creating a good storyline for you, or edit it for you. YOU know your book better than anyone. Do the work yourself. You might share your completed version with your fellow writers online or in real life to get their reactions, and this may help you make improvements, but the biggest part of the work is up to you. You can do it!

Why are short storylines so powerful? This is the reason. If someone asks you what your book is about, and you can reply with one short, powerful sentence, that is so much better than if you have to come up with something on the spot. In my own case, as a person with Asperger Syndrome who gets distracted by all the details in a story, working out a storyline ahead of time is the only way I could say anything interesting 

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