Boiling Your Concept Down to One Sentence

The first step in insuring you will actually finish telling the story is knowing what the story is about. That means you should be able to write the concept of your story in a simple sentence (fewer than one hundred words). Beginning writers often think this is impossible to do because their concepts are too complex, multi-leveled, or thematically tiered. While the novel itself may be all of those things, the concept really isn’t. Imagine if your novel were made into a movie; how would it be described in TV Guide?

The advantage of the one-sentence concept is that it helps the writer focus on the main elements of the story: character (which characters are most affected by the events?), plot (what is the core event that causes most of the conflict?), conflict (what are the conflicts that characters face with each other, with themselves, with outside events?), and theme (how the protagonist will change—and if he doesn’t change, what happens?). Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, you’ll be able to flesh out that cool idea into a workable concept that is able to support the weight of a novel.

Let’s take one of the most complex novels in American literature, Moby Dick, and see what the one-sentence concept might look like if Herman Melville had to write it for TV Guide:

A naïve young sailor joins a doomed whaling ship whose captain is obsessed with killing the giant white whale that took his leg—and with it his faith.

We learn a lot in just twenty-eight words. The first part of the sentence introduces the novel’s three main characters (Ishmael, Ahab, and the whale). It also introduces the plot (they are hunting a giant whale, and in this case, “giant” means “deadly”), the conflicts (naïve sailor versus obsessed captain; obsessed captain versus giant whale), the stakes (“doomed ship” implies a bad ending for some), and suspense (who will survive). The second part of the sentence tells us the thematic content; Loss of faith and therefore a search for truth about God, nature, and humanity’s place in an indifferent universe. Now, if Melville can imply all that in twenty-eight words, certainly you can, too.

This partial lecture came from the course The Art of Storytelling 101: Story Mapping and Pacing


  • How to create a great concept guaranteed to excite reader interest
  • How to create the three basic character types, and use them to build stakes and suspense
  • Why voice may be the most important component of your story
  • How to use the three-act structure to plot your story
  • How theme differentiates drama and melodrama
  • How to writer tighter, more powerful scenes
  • How a unique style distinguishes stories that have similar plots

Learn More About our Art of Storytelling 101: Story Mapping and Pacing Workshop!

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