Following on from my previous post where I came out (of the novel-writing closet), I thought I would tell you a little more about the novel and share a tip I picked up from reading Save The Cat – a brilliant book about Screenwriting. It’s author, Blake Snyder, believes the one killer question you need to answer before you even begin to write is . . .
WHAT IS IT?
Think about it. You mention to your friend that you’re writing a book. Their first question?
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Cue a couple of minutes of you umming and erring, scrabbling around for way to explain this great story waiting to burst out of your head. After the first thirty seconds your friend – no matter how polite – will start to get that faraway look in their eye. The look that says ‘I wonder what I can have for tea tonight?’ or ‘Did I put the bins out?’. You fail to capture, let alone hold their attention, because you haven’t really stopped to answer that single question:
WHAT IS IT?
The best way to do that? Come up with a logline. That’s a screenwriting term, but it’s just another way of saying ‘elevator pitch’ – a concise one or two lines that capture the essence of your story. It needs to give a sense of who, what and where this story is. Is it obvious in what genre you’re writing? Snyder also thinks it should have at least a whiff or irony about it and perhaps even some kind of time frame.
Hmm. It’s harder than it sounds. I sat down (after already having written more than twenty thousand words of my story) and began to see if I could boil it down to two sentences. My first effort was something like this:
‘Mickey Blake, an aging safe cracker and mastermind behind one of the crimes of the century, returns to the UK after 18 years on the run. Forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife, Mickey must outwit local gangsters and an undercover copper to stay alive long enough to pull off one last job.’
It’s not terrible. It includes some important elements of the story and it gives a vague description of my protagonist, but it feels too long. I tried two or three more iterations – mainly changing word order and including the additional detail of an estranged son – but it still didn’t sing, didn’t say where the story was set and didn’t really reflect Mickey’s personality. So, after a lot of refining, here’s what I’ve settled on. For now . . .
‘For the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts, acid-tongued safe cracker, Mickey Blake is forced out of retirement to rob a rundown casino in Skegness. He’s got one week to do it and all that stands in his way are a few old scores, two local gangsters and an undercover cop.’
Better? I think so. It has a similar word count to my first attempt, but has more information, gives a sense of who Mickey is and reveals my setting . . . Skegness! Yes, Skegness. For those unfamiliar with it, Skeggy (as it’s known locally) is a seaside town on the East coast of England and these days is probably most famous for being home to a large Butlins holiday resort. I think revealing that location and the part about ‘a son that hates his guts’ provides the ironic whiff I was looking for. I’ve also squeezed in the ‘one week’ time frame and created a mental image of some of the challenges he’s going to face.
I actually think it would work as a ‘one-liner’ – the first sentence does most of the work. Having this ‘one-liner’ has already helped me to focus and means I will at least have a chance at articulating my story the next time someone asks me what I’m spending all my spare time on.
I’m going to be posting regular updates along my novel-writing journey, so let me know which parts of the process you are most interested in and subscribe to the blog to keep up to date. I would love to hear your opinions on my logline and whether you’re intrigued to find out more about the story. So why not give it a try – write a logline for your novel or next short story – and let me know how you get on in the comments below. Alternatively, tweet me.