Writing an overview has proven time and time again to be a challenge that stumps even the most experienced of writers. How do you take this massive story that you’ve built and condense it down to a page? While is it important to give an accurate summation of your story, it is also important to sell your story. This week’s guest blogger, Thomas Locke, discusses what he has learned while writing overviews, and how you can write one that hooks your readers.
Somewhere out there is an author for whom writing a commercial overview is a piece of cake. They sit down, the concept is hovering in the air over their computer, they type it out, done and dusted. I haven’t met them, but I’m sure they exist. If you happen to be that lone individual, I’d advise you not to tell the rest of us. Your end will be swift and certain.
The story overview is a beast. You have all these ideas that are swarming around in your head. You have a huge cast of characters, a growing storm of events, and three or four hundred pages later, you’ve created a fabulous tale.
Then comes the hard part.
How on earth do you distill all this down to one page? How can you tell your story in just a few paragraphs, create in that tiny space a vision that is so compelling the gatekeepers will fall over themselves in their haste to offer you a publishing contract, a film deal, the keys to the kingdom, whatever?
After twenty-five years as a published author, with more than seventy books in print, the simple answer is, it doesn’t come easy. But it can be done. I am going to offer you a few simple steps that will help deconstruct the project, and hopefully guide you towards a synopsis that is magnetic in its appeal.
- Start with the question, so what’s your story about? Imagine you are seated in a television studio, with a much-loved interviewer staring at you from the other side of their desk. They ask you that question. How do you respond? You have the live audience on the other side of the camera, and they’re genuinely eager for you to tell them what they’re going to go out and buy the very next day. Write out that paragraph. Then set it aside.
- Accept that it is a gradual process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this first effort is going to be your finished project. Creating the winning overview is done through trial and error. A few days later, write your first paragraph again. Keep a notebook just for the overview. If you’re like me, most of these early attempts are not going to fit. But gradually you come to terms with the key element to the successful structure, which is:
- Your job is not to tell your story. Your goal is to SELL your story. At some point there will come that moment when you discover the amazing concept, the emotional foundation that fuels your quest to write this story. When that happens…
- Focus on that silver thread. Usually this emotional punch will help you identify the key plot line and characters that drive the story. The entire overview must center upon this one element. This time, when you write the paragraph, you will discover that the entire concept is real in a new sense. The paragraph that results is often called the story’s hook.
- Begin with the hook, end with the climax. Gradually you develop a story concept that was not there before. As a result, you will often perceive your story’s climax in a new light. Write this final paragraph next. Remember, you are not entering into a contract. You are not required to actually keep this climax. You are selling.
- Develop a log-line. The log-line is a Hollywood term, signifying the one sentence or even just a phrase that shouts to the world: This is unique, this is great, come join me on this amazing ride. At some point during the writing of my overview, I will go to the movies and walk down the line of posters for coming attractions. I visualize my story up there as a poster, and sketch out ideas for what this log-line might be. My goal is to come up with two, and I place one at the beginning and another at the end of my overview. These help the editor sell the story to the pub board, and the sales staff place your book with buyers. Oftentimes they also appear on the book’s back cover.
- Polish and distill. Only at this point do I begin to concern myself with length. Because I want my overview to work with Hollywood, I must limit myself to one page. It is very rare for anything longer to be considered by senior executives. If an overview gets that far up the food chain, a junior exec will trim the longer structures. I much prefer to do that myself.
A final bit of advice to new authors: Refrain from speaking with anyone about your work until your overview is complete. This serves two purposes. First, you have created a commercial structure, and that is what outside readers are really all about. They respond to your project, not to the tender seed of creative fire that exists at heart level. Second, you now have a means by which you can present your story in a brief and concise fashion. When someone asks what the story is about, you actually know what to say.
Here is an overview of mine that has recently been successful both with a publisher and with a Hollywood production company. The thriller Trial Run was released last August, and has recently been named a Best Book of 2015 by Suspense Magazine. My current release, Flash Point, is the sequel.
Her goal was to shatter all boundaries.
That night, Professor Gabriella Speciale does something she has never done before. An Italian psychologist, she has spent five years studying the brainwave patterns of practitioners of deep meditation. She now intends to apply the latest electromagnetic techniques to stimulate similar brainwaves in ordinary subjects; those who have never practiced mental control. But her initial candidate reports something utterly unexpected. Then another. After the third research experiment, Gabriella decides to break with the demands of scientific objectivity. She must slip into the lab after-hours, and take her own trial run.
Gabriella seems to float on the edge of human consciousness. She senses a gradual separation from her physical form, frightening but also captivating. At one level she identifies the phenomenon as an out-of-body experience. These have been chronicled, and controversial, for centuries. Only now there is a difference. With a little tweaking, Gabriella finds a means to both control and direct the out-of-body experience. She seems to be omniscient – going anywhere, seeing everything. Has she, in effect, defied the laws of gravity, locality and time? As the lab comes back into focus, Gabriella is flush with exhilaration – and anxiety. She does not fully understand the ramifications – but something this big needs to be protected.
Charlie Hazard is a former security contractor who understands little about the human mind, but something about the human spirit. After his return from duty in Iraq, his ex-wife had labeled him “damaged goods.” At some level he agrees with her. Still, he is pleased to get the assignment from the laboratory. He is to guard an international group of scientists, testing some new technology about time-travel or clairvoyance or some such. Seems the here-and-now is tough enough to deal with. But Charlie is perceptive and loyal, and prepared to respond to any threat.
Reese Clawson specializes in global risk analysis for an elite cadre of industry executives. She infiltrates Gabriella’s group and steals the perception-bending technology. Her aim is decidedly mercenary – to package and sell the ultimate information-gathering system to the highest bidder. Her head spins with possibilities – marketing, detective work, espionage. But something has gone wrong. Her test-subjects slide into a coma-like state. Reese scrambles to maintain control and stave-off the demands of her clients.
Charlie Hazard uncovers the theft and Reese Clawson’s intentions. Gabriella is faced with an impossible choice. Either she allows Clawson to undermine the fundamental paradigms of global security, or she finds a way to recapture the equipment. Surely another priority is to save the coma-bound subjects. Charlie steps forward to take on the challenge. He races against the clock, even as time and space twist in unexpected directions. He summons his battered courage to protect and rescue – in and out of the physical realm. But he remains keenly aware that….
What you don’t know can kill you.
I wish you every triumph in making a winning transition from creative project to
Thomas Locke is a pseudonym for Davis Bunn, the award-winning novelist with total worldwide sales of seven million copies. His work has been published in twenty languages, and critical acclaim includes four Christy Awards for excellence in fiction. Davis divides his time between Oxford and Florida and holds a lifelong passion for speculative stories. Read more at http://tlocke.com/
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