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February 2011

Study questions

1. What is the primary category you’re writing? You can define this either by its genre (romance, thriller, mystery, literary, etc.) or by its audience (Christian fiction, women’s fiction, YA, etc.).

2. What is your secondary category? Mysteries break out into hard-boiled, police procedural, cozy, etc. Christian fiction breaks out into Christian romance, Christian mystery, etc. Define it completely.

3. Choose a central character and define him or her in a unique way. You may not be able to get it all into your 25 word limit—but try.

4. Define your story’s outer conflict. Who is your character up against? A villain? A hostile environment? God? Phrase your outer conflict in a Story Question: “Will my lead character do X, or won’t he?” X should be objective, not subjective.

5. Define your story’s inner conflict. In what way would resolving the outer conflict cause your lead character to violate his integrity? How can you sharpen this to make it apparently impossible for your lead character to solve the outer conflict without becoming a person he doesn’t want to be?


Writer’s Toolbox: Selling Your Novel in 25 Words or Less

Writer's Toolbox logoEditor’s note: Instead of a downloadable PDF, this issue’s study questions are in the sidebar. Take advantage of them and strengthen your manuscript.

I met a guy I’ll call Aberforth at a writing conference last year. A new writer. Enthusiastic as all get out. And really jazzed to be at a real, live writing conference talking to real, live writers.

Tire Store Guy“So what’s your novel about?” I asked.

A big grin shot across Aberforth’s face. “Well, see, there’s this guy. And he works at the auto parts store, okay? No, hold on, I changed that—he works at the tire store. And he’s got this girlfriend. Actually, she’s not all that important to the first part of the story, but she gets important later. I mean, it’s not a romance, but there’s romance in it. It’s really kind of a thriller, with some mystery and a little supernatural in it. And there’s a bunch of that moral dilemma stuff. You with me so far?”

I shook my head. “You lost me after your first five words.”

That was the bad news

The good news is Aberforth actually had a story, despite the fact that he had no idea how to tell me what it was. We sat down and talked for an hour and figured out what his story was and how to explain it in a time less than the age of the universe.

At the end of that hour, an agent friend of mine walked by. I’ll call her Bathilda.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to answer the question, “What’s your novel about?”

“Hey, Bathilda,” I said. “Meet Aberforth. He’s a novelist and he’s got an interesting idea for his next book. Aberforth meet Bathilda. She’s an agent.”

Bathilda smiled at Aberforth and shook his hand. “What sort of fiction do you write?”

“Supernatural suspense.”

“Really?” Bathilda pulled up a chair, sat down, and leaned forward. “What’s your novel about?”

A big grin shot across Aberforth’s face. “A tire salesman develops the ability to read people’s most secret sins—and gets hired by a corrupt government agency to interrogate terrorists under torture.”

“Whoa!” Bathilda fanned her face. “We need to talk.” She gave me a look that told me to take a hike.

I got up and walked away.


Take the short way—every time

There’s a right way and a wrong way to answer the question, “What’s your novel about?”

The wrong way is the long way. If it takes more than 25 words, then it’s wrong.

The right way begins with category. You absolutely must know what shelf your book is going to go on in the bookstore. If you don’t know, nobody does. Figure that out first. The primary category first, then the subcategory. Be able to describe your category in no more than four words.

Once you know your category, be able to describe your story in one sentence that explains your lead character’s problem. Anything that’s not about that problem needs to go. Everything.
Let’s look at the three essential components of a really good one-sentence summary of a novel:

  1. A central character
  2. The outer conflict
  3. The inner conflict

The central character

You can’t afford to be writing about a character who is like everybody else.

This is one of the major characters in your story. He can be your lead character, but that’s not required, if he’s the person creating the problem for your lead character.

You must describe this character in a few words and tell enough about him to show how he’s different from all other people on the planet. Or at least, most of them.

Tire Guy handsIn Aberforth’s story, he thought his lead character was “this guy.” Wow, that rules out the three billion people on the planet who aren’t guys. Amazing.

Okay, so “this guy” works at the tire store. In other words, he’s got a job. Like everybody else.


You can’t afford to be writing about a character who is like everybody else. One reason Stieg Larsson sold a boatload of books in 2010 is because the girl with the dragon tattoo isn’t like everybody else.

How is your central character different? How is she interesting? Why the heck would I want to spend six hours reading about her? Tell me now. Tell me fast.

It took me 10 minutes of quizzing Aberforth to learn that his tire guy can read people’s most secret sins.


The outer conflict

The outer conflict must match your category. If it doesn’t, then you’ve got the wrong category.

This is the big picture story. It’s the conflict between your lead character and somebody or something. It’s the problem that must be solved. It defines your Story Question: “Will the lead character solve this problem or won’t he?”

An argumentYou have only a few words to define your outer conflict. The outer conflict must match your category. If it doesn’t, then you’ve got the wrong category. Change it to fit the outer conflict.

It took me 15 minutes of questioning to get Aberforth to tell me where his story was going. The feds learn about his lead character’s skill and they ask him to serve his country—by interrogating terrorists to prevent a looming national disaster.

The inner conflict

The inner conflict is what separates good fiction from great.

This is where your story gets personal. It’s the conflict between your lead character and himself. The inner conflict is what separates good fiction from great. Without inner conflict, your novel is just a straight race in one dimension to solve the outer conflict.

With inner conflict, it’s a race to solve the outer conflict without violating the lead character’s integrity.

Failure_SuccessAberforth hinted that he had a moral dilemma in his novel. But he told me there was a moral dilemma, which is like telling me he’s smart, popular, and good-looking. I’d much rather figure it out myself. Show me your moral dilemma, don’t tell me you have one.

It took us 20 minutes to define the moral dilemma of Aberforth’s story and build it into his one-sentence summary without going over the 25-word limit.

The result

Bathilda sold that novel in a three-book deal reputed to be in the mid six figures. Aberforth recently finished final edits on his book and called me on Skype.

“So what’s your second book about?” I asked.

“That’s why I’m calling,” Aberforth said. “See, there’s this guy . . .”

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