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  1. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    What's it about?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by deadrats, Dec 6, 2017 at 5:16 PM.

    I'm sure just about everyone who has attempted to write a novel has been asked this question? So why is it so hard to answer. Of course, I can give a rundown of events and talk about characters, but what's the story really about? And if I am struggling to answer this, how much of a problem do I have?
     
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  2. orangefire

    orangefire Member

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    I don't think it's a bad thing if you can't answer that. It just means your story is too complex to easily turn into a short response.
     
  3. Trish

    Trish Lost.. got any breadcrumbs I can follow? Supporter Contributor

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    My standard answer is: "It's about a girl" and then I wait for the eyeroll or the question to decide what comes next.

    To answer your question though - I guess it depends on how far in you are? Since I'm not a planner, I don't always know what it's about until I'm done. Or at least I don't know fully. So if you're just starting, or haven't finished yet, I don't think you need to be worried about it.
     
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  4. PixelOwl

    PixelOwl New Member

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    I don't think it's too much of a problem until you give up on answering. I find I'm never satisfied until I can summarize my story in one sentence and my themes in another. So for a famous example, my method would be, "Harry Potter is about an unknowing hero going to a magic school. It touches on the consequences of war and the value of love and friendship in a frightening world." Not the most stunning summary, I know, but it boils it down to its core concepts(And how can you truly capture a seven-book epic of wonderment in so few words, anyway?). And I think the core concept is what everyone needs to know, especially the author, so that they can always bring the story back around to what counts when it starts to deviate.

    (I'm sorry if this didn't make any sense)
     
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  5. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    But what you just said pretty much sounds like a bad thing. I think all stories are about something. And if that's not clear to the reader or even to me as a writer, I'm pretty sure there is a problem.
     
  6. Trish

    Trish Lost.. got any breadcrumbs I can follow? Supporter Contributor

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    I wouldn't say that. Some people are good at poetry - some aren't. Some people are good at writing flash fiction - some aren't. Some are good at writing synopses - some aren't.

    Condensing what your book is about into a few sentences is a skill - and a very different one than writing the novel. And, really, you can't even work on that skill for your specific story until it's finished. It works way better when the cart is behind the horse.
     
  7. orangefire

    orangefire Member

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    I suppose it depends what you're going for. The story should be clear in the book, yes. I'm just saying that being hard to summarize isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    If I can condense a novel down to a single sentence or two, I usually ask myself if someone would really want to read several hundred pages about it. Usually it's either

    A.) The story doesn't have enough to it to be interesting as a novel and would work better as a short story.
    B.) The summary leaves out a lot of important stuff and doesn't really do it justice.

    For example, the fantasy novel I've been working on recently.

    "Legacy of Verail: The Arcane Conflict is a story about a young woman who was exiled from her homeland."

    That's true.

    "Legacy of Verail: The Arcane Conflict is a story about a council of mages who are willing to go to any length to avenge their homeworld."

    That's also true.

    Now, I could change that into a single sentence.

    "Legacy of Verail: The Arcane Conflict is a story about a young woman who was exiled from her homeland by a council of mages who are willing to go to any length to avenge their homeworld."

    Or if I want to add in another of my main characters.

    "Legacy of Verail: The Arcane Conflict is a story about a young woman who teams up with a professional assassin after being exiled from her homeland by a council of mages who are willing to go to any length to avenge their homeworld."

    That isn't actually terrible aside from leaving out a main character still, and not really giving any details about the setting.

    My point being that a plot spanning several hundred pages is going to be hard to summarize. You can, like PixelOwl's example of Harry Potter, it just isn't going to explain it well, and I for one don't like to give a summary that won't do the story justice.

    Now if you can't explain it at all, you might have an issue. I just wouldn't expect it to be a quick response to a question. I tend to take a couple paragraphs whenever someone asks me that question.

    Trish makes a good point too. Some people probably could give a much shorter synopsis that works well. I know I'm generally terrible at that, but I'm not too concerned with it as long as I can write the actual book well.
     
  8. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    I admit to being total crap at 'condensing' my story into a couple of sentences—which is one of those things I need to be able to do to promote my book. And yet I think I've written a decent novel (and quite a number of my betas agree.)

    Assuming your story isn't a pointless wandering load of crap, what's the best way to 'condense' it? To tell somebody what it's 'about?' Has anybody here got a method?

    I find I come up against one problem. It's not my job to tell readers what the story is about. It's up to them to find out by reading it. Are painters expected to explain what their paintings are 'about?' If not, why are authors asked that same question and expected to answer it? The story is what it is ...what you make of it.

    I usually sidestep the issue by saying where it's laid, when it takes place and a general overview of the main characters. But since I want people to discover how the characters interact, etc, by reading the story, and decide what the overall significance is on their own, I don't really want to tell them what the story is 'about.' So I back off the question more often than not.
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2017 at 5:59 AM
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  9. izzybot

    izzybot Oportet Vivere Contributor

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    I can come up with themes and general idea, because I'm a planner and that's the stuff I think about in planning, but I think it's difficult to say what a story is really about before you've finished it. At least I know that's the case for me.

    Some people just aren't great at synopses, too, and you might improve that skill by writing them for stories that aren't yours to teach yourself what the really important things are, then turning that mindset on your own stuff.

    The other night a friend asked me what my novel was about, and I didn't really feel like talking about it, so I just said, "It's some fantasy nonsense." (He gave me a look.) "Like with magic and shit," said I, the wordsmith :p
     
  10. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    It's just giving them the top line of the primary plot strand; the kind of character and where they start out. I know it's not the most natural thing to do as someone who's labored hard to write something genuinely good but it really does come down to that. Who (in broad terms) is the MC and what are they overcoming?

    I used to struggle with this stuff too, but as I've solidified in a genre I think it's become rather easy. What was my last book about? Teenage girl pretending to have cancer. The one I'm working on now? Teenage girl enters the psychotic world of beauty pageants.

    No, that kind of stuff doesn't really tell the reader all that much about what is in the book but I think it actually makes more difference to the reader than you might imagine. A lot of people pick books this way, by subject matter. It's all part of the same stuff of writing characters who your audience can see themselves in and naturally sympathize with. It makes no real difference to how good a book is but it's stuff that makes the audience click with it, predisposes people to want to hear more. Some people are going to groan if you say it's a book about wizards, not because they think it makes it a bad book, just that's not what they are interested in.
     
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  11. crappycabbage

    crappycabbage New Member

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    Are we talking about the story's theme or more of a blurb sort of thing? My go-to in the second situation is to concentrate on the main character and their problem, and try to keep it really short. That can be really difficult though. I remember the first time anyone asked me what my novel was about and I rambled on for like 20 minutes, not even making sense to myself. And while the person who asked me was probably regretting their question, I was in a panic over this, almost contemplating rolling out of the car. :D So, after a first draft I spend a bit of time trying to capture the story in a sentence or two, just in case someone asks, so I don't get into full melt-down again. "It's about a mermaid trying to find her way home in a dystopian future when the sea is full of junk" or "It's about three mathletes in search for their friend who disappeared using an ancient dark magic math formula."

    A vague description with the hint of theme might also work: "It's about a sea creature trying to find a home in a dark world." or "It's about three teens, trying to fight the evil who took their friend." It depends a bit on who the description is for and how specific you need to be. Sometimes a story is about a fundamentally human journey, going from one state of being to another: ex. "Rich<->poor", "weak<->strong", "despair <-> hope", that can also help explain what a story is about. But we're sometimes a bit too close to our stories to do this, that's why we sometimes ramble, I guess. Good luck. :)
     
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  12. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    Yeah I think that's all it is. No writer likes to see all of their hard work summed up in such a prosaic and simple way. You work hard on a book weaving together plot strands and emotional moments and all kinds of things. And when someone asks you to forget all of the nuance of course it makes you uncomfortable and not know where to start, because the nuance is kinda the point of writing a whole book.

    It's the same synopsis writing. It sucks to be trying to lay out the whole plot in 500 words, it sucks that you have to leave out plot strands and characters that really matter and have their own arcs just for the sake of space. Pressing it down into such a small space makes you want to say "...But it's much better than it sounds" because you've lost all the things that made it good and interesting to you by making it so small.

    But sadly that's just part of the game. Both for friends and for agents and publishers they want the top line and it's better to at least make sure your condensed version is a good one.
     
  13. crappycabbage

    crappycabbage New Member

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    I totally agree. And I reckon it's better to have a book with a so-so synopsis than a great synopsis without a book. If you can write a book, you can write a synopsis too, I swear. Maybe not today, but once you get some distance from it perhaps. :)
     
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  14. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Wrting is never clean. :) Contributor

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    I concur with @orangefire. :)

    Though I just simply tell people it is a Sci-fi, with Aliens and
    they don't use lasers as weapons. :p
    Also that it is a Grim War story. :)
     
  15. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Thank you. That's actually very helpful and got me thinking in a certain direction.
     
  16. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yep. That's me. Like with ranches and cowboys and shit.... :)
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2017 at 6:09 AM
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  17. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yours are all pretty good one-liners, in my opinion.

    I don't have a problem doing a synopsis, because that's intended to show that the story has progression and the plot is sound. A synopsis is for the eyes of an agent, is basically giving the plot points all the way to the end, and has a specific purpose. I could do that. A synopsis also is more than a couple of lines as well.

    It's summing up the essence of the story in a sentence or so that gives me the gyp. I need to work on that. I suppose if I practice doing that kind of summing up with other stories I might get the hang of it.
     
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  18. crappycabbage

    crappycabbage New Member

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    Essence used to give me headache too, but the more novels I write the more I notice that there's a certain theme popping up again and again, so that probably is the real essence of my stories. But not everyone has a defining theme like that, and novel writers have room for more theme than one in a book, so which is the most important one? That can be tough to decide. Especially for writers working on long stories with multiple character POV's, all with their different arcs. Yikes.
     
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  19. Jupie

    Jupie Senior Member

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    I agree with a lot of the sentiments here expressed that it's very difficult to actually explain your novel and summarise it in a couple of sentences. I find that very difficult to do and generally fail at it. It's a shame because most of my friends have no intention of reading my book but they are very interested in hearing about it (for a few minutes) and I never do a good job at explaining. That said, as much as I do agree with the idea that it's up to the reader to interpret the story and we should never box ourselves into simple genre, I do think it's good practice to think up a 'layman's' outline of your novel so to speak. If you can describe the heart of your story in a few sentences, more power to you. It's a good skill to have and it could be a sign that your book is on the way towards being marketable. Whenever I try and outline my novel it either sounds mind-numbingly simple or it sounds horribly complex and convoluted. It's very difficult for me to get the right balance.

    At the moment I just say my story is about a young prince with a bad leg who is hated by his father. It seems to interest people because it's about family and disability but they're always looking at me like 'well, is that it?' and I'm always like 'well, there's about 300 pages more to say but I don't know how to tell you without lapsing into storytelling.' The truth is I rarely think about the marketing or explanations at this stage. I'm just obsessed with the writing process. So much so that a second draft of my story might look completely different to the first but to me the roots are still the same. Perhaps characters are everything after all. So long as you keep their essential natures you can change pretty much anything. Or maybe it's more where the basis of your original idea stems from. If it is plot-inspired then you must hold onto the core of that idea or at least let it evolve, and if it's setting-focused the same applies. In my case, it's more character-based...
     
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  20. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    The CBSO has an offshoot that plays modern chamber music and, a few years ago, ran a series of free concerts in the wilds of Shropshire, some of which I attended.

    One of the downsides (sic) of modern music is that the composer is still alive, and frequently available to come along and explain what his composition is about.

    Having heard a few of their explanations, I was reminded of the interviews I've heard from professional footballers; I'd rather they left the talking to those who can, and concentrated on what they do well - playing football. Same with composers.
     
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  21. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yep, that's me too!
     
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  22. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    No, I don't think it's a problem. In the industry, novels which can be easily described in one sentence are called 'high concept'. The majority of novels are not described as high concept.
     
  23. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I can never figure out what the heck my story is until maybe after the first draft. I have a germ of an idea but it always transmogrifies. For instance I thought my WIP had to do with creative sacrifice -- now I'm not so sure. It's got a bit of that but it's evolving. We'll see.
    If I had to give a boring answer it's about a fourteen year old boy-star who blackmails his director into being his dad.
     
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  24. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    Are you sure that's the boring answer? That sounds baller.
     
  25. surrealscenes

    surrealscenes Active Member

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    Do you really not have a sentence description in your head before you start?

    'A man-child grows up and saves the world'

    'A child learns the benefit of sharing and it opens his future'

    'A woman uncovers the truth and it sets her free'

    'A teen joins a rebellion and helps to change the universe'

    Do a search for something like 'famous book plots in one sentence', and you will probably be able to do yours after reading others.
     

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