Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Wrestling with the one-line premise

Since one of my goals for this year is to write more blog posts more regularly, here is the first one! (Yes, I’m one of those tedious people who do goal setting every year but I’ll write about that another time).

If you have read any books on screenwriting, you’ll be familiar with the ‘log line’ or the one-line premise. What is this movie about? Sum it up in one pithy sentence that not only gives us the heart of the story but that will entice people to go and see it (and publicists to use it). I’ve been reading Save The Cat recently, after having it on my shelf for about four years, and the one-sentence premise is in there, too.

I often set this as an exercise in novel writing classes. I often set it for myself, especially if I’m struggling to nail the answer down. Yeah, what the heck is this stupid novel about? Why can’t I sum it up the way other people can? The answer I tell myself is: if I can’t sum up the heart of my story clearly, it will show in the work. I end up with something that feels either slightly or majorly unfocused. The narrative drive is not strong enough. I feel like I can’t convince even myself what question I’m trying to answer.

It would be a lot easier to say I could leave this premise thing until the end of the draft. Until the third draft maybe. I could even leave it to the publicist, if it got published. Except … it niggles at me. I need to know the heart of my story, or else how can I find it in the writing?

I was reminded of this today while reading the Sunday Age. In there was an article about a Swedish writer, Fredrik Backman, and his debut novel, A Man Called Ove. It talked about his rejections, about how he worked as a forklift driver, but also that he was writing as a freelancer. Now that first novel has sold 2.8 million copies around the world, etc etc. Ordinary man into Swedish superstar writer. Yawn.

Except … I read the summaries of his novels (three of them were just one line each) and I wanted to read them all. One is My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You, about a girl named Elsa whose grandmother dies, leaving her with a batch of letters to deliver to people her grandmother had wronged in her life. Britt-Marie Was Here is about a passive-aggressive woman who leaves her cheating husband and ends up coaching a children’s soccer team in a backwater town.

I was dying to ask Fredrik if he came up with these one-liners before he wrote, after he wrote, or if somebody else did it for him. Within every one of the one-liners are more questions that only reading the book can answer. What’s in those letters? What did the grandmother do? What do the people who receive the letters do? How did that woman end up coaching a kids’ soccer team? What happened then?

I think the key to the one-liner is how many questions it makes you ask – how intriguing is it? It also, to me, includes theme like a refrain underneath. Redemption. Betrayal. Humanity (Ove). Creating a one-liner for your novel might take you a day or even a week. I know it’s taken me that long sometimes when I’ve tried to do it. But what I also have learned is that if I can’t do it after a week of trying, there is something wrong with my novel that I need to work out before I go any further.

No comments: