“I wish I was special” – Creep, Radiohead
Every word, every story, is special to the person who writes it, generally speaking. But is it really special? Will it stand out in a crowded market to an agent, an editor, a book buyer? Will it compel a reader to pick it up in a market where books compete with TV, video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment?
It can be helpful to put on your reader hat and imagine finding your book in a bookstore, eye caught by the cover, picking it up to read…your one-sentence story hook. It should, as the term implies, hook the reader’s attention. Would it hook yours? You are, presumably, a fan of the genre you’re writing. What books do you love most? What storylines do you find irresistible? What aspects of those stories do you hate or find cliched and overdone? What story would you love to find done with a new angle or twist? Does your one sentence convey that here is something special, worth a reader’s attention?
One good way to test this is to try to come up with a strong one-sentence description, like the kind you find in TV Guide or IMDB describing a series episode or a movie. If you can’t come up with a single gripping sentence, maybe your whole idea is too vague, too weak, too generic.
I analyzed a project of mine this way last week, and I had to conclude; no. It’s not special, there’s nothing new or compelling about it. It’s a tried and true storyline but in a competitive marketplace with more new writers competing for readers’ attention every day, that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to be competent and to come up with a story a reader has already read a thousand times. Not unless something about it really is special, unique, compelling, the same but different in an irresistible way.
So I went back to the drawing board, and I found an approach that really is compelling, a different take on a classic kind of romance. That story will get written and published eventually. My not so special idea? On the scrap heap. If it’s not something I can honestly say I’d want badly enough to devote my small percentage of free time to as a reader, it’s not worth my time as a writer. I’m going to have to spend far more time in that story world than any consumer will as the creator of it. It had better grab me by the throat and not let go, and it needs to do it in a single sentence. Because with all the competition for attention in the entertainment world, people need a reason to read any further than that.
Unless your name is Stephen King, “Because I wrote it” is not going to be reason enough. Remember that regardless of the size of your backlist, any story of yours a reader picks up may be the first time they’ve heard of you or read you, and if you don’t knock their socks off, it might also be the last.
We’re not selling self-help or instructional work, where being an expert might be enough to carry you and compel a reader to buy. We’re selling entertainment, escape, fantasy. So we have to capture our audience’s imagination and we have to do it right up front, right now.
Take your current project and put it to the one sentence test. Can you condense your idea into a single compelling sentence that you would find irresistible as a reader? Would it hook your attention and engage your imagination and get you to read further? If the honest answer is no, don’t be afraid to scrap it and start over or to re-envision and re-imagine your core idea until the answer is a resounding, “YES!”
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Writing the Breakout Novel/Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass