4 simple formulas for figuring out a story

This is a classic New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts.

This classic New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts expresses my state of mind!

This morning I happened upon a computer file of notes I kept while writing The Shadow Queen. I was particularly interested in a section on formulas for figuring out a novel’s “elevator pitch”—the summation of a story in a sentence or two.

This is invariably difficult, at least for me. My mind does not lend itself to reductions. I’m more of the expanding type. (Not an asset.) These formulas give one hope that a difficult task will be made easy.

Don’t be fooled, however!

These 4 formulas, which I’ve gathered from hither and yon — without always noting the source, so my apologies for not crediting the creators — are helpful in getting at the core of that unwieldy beast: a novel.

The 1-sentence formula

When _____ [OPENING CONFLICT]
happens to _____ [CHARACTER],
he/she has to _____ [OVERCOME CONFLICT]
in order to _____ [COMPLETE QUEST].

As applied to the YA novel I’m writing now, I came up with:

Haunted by dreams of her dead father, a 15-year-old girl goes on a quest to find out if she was the cause of his death.

This is a tidy summary, but as with most one-sentence summaries, this doesn’t actually fit what actually happens in the novel.

The 3-sentence formula

_____ is about _____, who wants to _____.
The only problem is that _____.
As a result, he/she _____.
Yet, ultimately, he/she succeeds because _____.

So, once again, applying this to Moonsick

Moonsick is about a girl who hates her awful stepfather Napoleon, and longs for her wonderful father, whom she idolizes. The only problem is that her father was beheaded, and it may have been her fault. In her quest to find out why he died, she discovers some unpleasant truths. Seeking her father in the realm of the afterlife, she learns that his death had nothing to do with her. Yet, ultimately, she succeeds because she comes to finally appreciate the real-life love of her stepfather, Napoleon.

The 3-part book formula

A book summary should give 3 things:

1. The genre (i.e. “mystery novel”);
2. Parameters: what happens and what the reader getting into (“Seattle”, “a detective” “a dead boyfriend”);
3. Something left to the imagination (a dead body, a framed main character).

Moonsick is historical fiction for Young Adults. It’s about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense, who hates her stepfather Napoleon and idolizes her dead father … until she finds out some unpleasant truths.

Better, I think …

The 5-part story formula

1. Character
2. Situation (What trouble that forces the character to act?)
3. Objective (The character’s goal.)
4. Opponent
5. Disaster (The awful thing that could happen.)

Make each of these elements specific.
Put them together to form two sentences.

Sentence 1: A statement that establishes character, situation, and objective.
Sentence 2: A statement—or question—that pinpoints the opponent and potential disaster.

Haunted by nightmares of her dead father, 15-year-old Hortense goes on a quest to find out if the father she idolizes is trying to tell her something. Was it her fault that he was executed? What she finds out is not at all what she expected, and more of this world than the next.

I think this is a better summary — but I don’t think I’ve nailed down the 5 elements, exactly.

This is so hard!

Do any of you have formulas you use successfully? I’d love to know.

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