Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In the beginning . . .

by Debby Giusti

I’m ready to develop a new story for Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired Suspense line and wanted to see what the experts say about how to begin.

A number of weeks ago, we discussed the benefits of studying screenwriting to improve our fiction thanks to a blog by Seeker Sandra Leesmith. She mentioned Blake Snyder’s book, SAVE THE CAT(Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA, 2005).

Start at the beginning is Blake’s advice in SAVE THE CAT. Every writer – whether creating the next Academy Award winning screenplay or the next New York Times bestseller – needs to answer one question about the story he or she is going to create: WHAT IS IT?

If you can answer that question in a sentence that captures the imagination of editors and readers alike, you’ve got a story worth writing.

Blake uses the terms logline and one-line to refer to the all-important first sentence that defines the story. Just like the ingredients that turn an ordinary dish into a culinary delight, Blake offers the following recipe for an effective logline.

●The one-line must contain irony. The example he uses: A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend. Notice how the logline for PRETTY WOMAN grabs our interest especially because of the irony, or unexpected element, of the love story. Blake says, if our loglines don’t have irony, we need to reconstruct our stories to include that necessary and all-important ingredient.

●The logline offers a promise of more. Anyone hearing the one-line -- think editor/reader -- should be able to visualize the story about to unfold.

●Identifies audience and cost. As writers, we need to be true to our genre and recognize which readers we’re trying to attract. Often a youthful heroine draws a younger readership, while seasoned secondary characters could resonate with an older audience. The cost of production has little application to the written word unless we’re hoping to sell the film rights as well.

●Killer title. LEGALLY BLONDE packs both the irony and story promise in a title Blake finds effective. A logline and title go hand-in-hand, and both should answer the “What is it?” question.

Once we’ve included the above four components into our logline, Blake suggests pitching to anyone who will listen in order to fine-tune our one-line and our story.

Bob Mayer, in his book, THE NOVEL WRITER’S TOOLKIT (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2003), also talks about beginning with one sentence that captures the original idea for our story. The "what if” is the foundation upon which to build the entire story.

Meyer suggests talking about our stories to others to ensure we can effectively communicate the concept. Once we’re satisfied with our sentence, then we can begin to write the story.

Evan Marshall offers similar advice in his book, THE MARSHALL PLAN FOR NOVEL WRITING (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1998), although he uses the term “Suppose” in place of the “What if.” Marshall encourages writers to start with a crisis.

His test for an authentic story idea includes the following:
The crisis must be genre appropriate.
The crisis must turn your lead’s (hero/heroine's) life upside down in a negative way.
The crisis must capture your imagination.

According to Marshall, writers must give the lead a goal that will solve the crisis. In achieving that goal, the lead must seek possession of some treasure or relief from something destructive. He will face terrible consequences if he fails. In addition, the lead must have a worthy motivation and confront tremendous odds.

In WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL (HarperCollins, NY, 1988), Michael Hague uses “what if” to develop a plot situation or character that fits into the sentence: It is a story about a (character)________ who (action)______.

He uses the following example for ROMANCING THE STONE: It is the story about a romance novelist who tries to rescue her sister and falls in love with a soldier of fortune.

Hague’s story concept checklist includes:
●Reader can identify with hero
●Motivation (Needs to be a clear, specific, visible motivation or objective the hero hopes to achieve by the end of the story.)
●Obstacles stand in the hero’s way
●The hero needs courage to achieve his objective

Seems the pros agree that beginning with a one-line gets the story off to a good start. I’m pulling out paper and pencil to jot down some ideas in hopes of coming up with a sentence or logline that identifies the lead characters, expresses the objective or goal they must achieve and hints at how they will change and grow in the process. I’ll add Blake Synder’s idea of irony into the mix as well.

How do you start a new story?

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti


  1. Debby,

    Thanks for the great overview of what experts say about how to start a story.

    I especially like the part about including irony.

    When I start a story I think about what Stephen King said about taking a profession or situation you know about and then taking it to the worst -case scenario. Kind of like how John Grisham does with the legal profession.

  2. Debby,

    Sometimes that one line is the hardest part of all.

  3. I've never done a one line BEFORE writing the story. I'll definitely be keeping this in mind for my next one, though. :-)

  4. Great post...I've never heard of writing just one line that basically sums up the story, and THEN writing the actual story. Hey, maybe I'll try it next time ;) It sounds kind of interesting, although I bet figuring out that one line is a lot harder then it sounds!

  5. Hey Deb, great and thought-provoking post!

    Being a first-line freak, I tend toward one-line thinking, so I agree that developing a one- (or two-) line overview is very helpful. In fact, that one line usually catapults me into the story big time. Not only in the beginning of the book, but with each new scene. I close my eyes and brainstorm a first line that will pack a punch and pull me in, and then BAM! Before you know it, the scene is dragging me in by the throat. :)

    And for all of us writers who go to conferences and pitch to editors, the one-line premise is crucial. That is where I actually learned how to do it because you only have so many minutes in an appt. with an editor, so you have to give them the premise in a neat, short and exciting way if you are going to hook them in. And the premise (or 1-line overview) is the best way to do that.


  6. Nicely done, Debby. I love Michael Hague's approach myself.

  7. Very thought-provoking post, Debby. I think I get better at coming up with one-liners as I write more stories.

    How do I start a new story?

    I try to think of a character who's in a bad situation and think of the most satisfying way for this situation to develop and eventually pan out. (Satisfying is a key word for me when I'm plotting.) For example, if the heroine's low social status is keeping her and the hero apart, first I have to come up with all the reasons they shouldn't be together, illustrated by scenes, side by side with the reasons they NEED to be together, again, illustrated by scenes, and then come up with the most satisfying ending possible. To me that would involve the hero being willing to give up his own high social status in order to marry the heroine. The hero MUST do something truly heroic, and the heroine must experience the full gamut of emotions so the reader can relate to her.

    In other words, the hero must be willing to give up what was, up until this point, the most important thing to him, for the sake of the heroine, and the heroine must be willing to courageously face whatever comes at her. That's sort of my formula, if I have one.

  8. Good morning, Debby! I hope you had a great trip to Kentucky!!

    I took one of Alicia Rasley's online classes on Theme, and we had to come up with a 25-word summary or pitch. Oh my gosh, you'd think I wa having to solve the problem of world hunger. It was so hard for me! I never did get that thing down to less than 26 words. And I still hadn't really nailed the theme. About that time, I had a new deadline so never got to finish the class. But it's something I need to go back to and try to master.

    Thanks for the great resources you listed!


  9. Debby,

    Great post! I've never printed any out before, but this one I am. And I'm gonna stick it with my Michael Hauge notes. (Thanks, Tina, for you know what!)

    I really hate first lines.

    Oh, I recognize great ones.

    Jane walked into the grocery store and forgot who she was.

    My hate is solely rests in the fact I can't write good ones. Not that I don't want to. Like with cooking pot roast, I've tried a myriad of ways yet they all come out too chewy. *sigh*

    Some writers have a gift for writing first lines.

    Some have developed the skill.

    The rest of us rely on crit partners. :-)

  10. What a timely post for me, Debby, as I'm in the "birthing the baby" stages of a new book and trying to cement this very thing in my head. I know the conflict and the people, but what threw me is the part you said about the change impacting the lead in a negative way. Hmmmm. I'm thinking about all these things and realize I've more work (thinking) to do.

    Susan Meissner called this one-liner the "high concept" in her class at ACFW. A whole story in a few words. A daunting task, to say the least.

    Great food for thought. I appreciate that you gave so many writing teachers' thoughts on this. Yet, they all have a single purpose--writing AND selling a book people want to read.

    Your post is definitely a keeper.

  11. Timely post, Debby! I like the idea of using irony in our one-liners. Along with that goes pairing a hero and heroine you'd normally never expect to fall for each other--which so often seems to be the way it happens in real life.

  12. Debby thank you for breaking this down and for the resources. Crafting those one-liners are what I was going to talk about next month. But you've given us some excellent resources here. I might need to change my post. LOL!

    I believe it was Michael Hague who I heard speak on this at RWA one year. Excellent stuff. Thanks for posting.



  13. Debby thank you for breaking this down and for the resources. Crafting those one-liners are what I was going to talk about next month. But you've given us some excellent resources here. I might need to change my post. LOL!

    I believe it was Michael Hague who I heard speak on this at RWA one year. Excellent stuff. Thanks for posting.



  14. Thanks Debby for a very helpful contribution. It amazes me how hard authors work to create the best reading experience for their readers.

    As mostly a non-fiction writer, I like to bring the reader ‘up to speed’ as soon as possible, with a minimum of words, by ‘investing’ the reader (getting the reader emotionally and intellectually involved) in the story while providing a preview of the rewarding reading experience that is to come. Thereafter my job is to continually reward the reader for staying with me -- right to the end of the book.

    Hollywood is in love with the “high concept” one sentence description of a movie idea that is so powerful that everyone knows it will be a Blockbuster. “Just get me the right script.” Like so much in LaLa Land I think this is often a lot of smoke and mirrors.

    In reality if you have a great story with memorable characters that readers like and relate to, then I don’t think the first line is that significant. (At least to the reader.)

    Consider these first lines from great selling books:

    Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814. “Around the World in 80 Days”, Jules Verne

    Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. “Emma”, Jane Austen

    I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. “Robinson Crusoe”, Daniel Defoe

    The above first lines are quick to get the reader up to speed but they don’t exactly start in the middle of things. I know, readers today are different. They have short attention spans and lots of competition from other media. This is all true but deep-down it is still the story and the characters.

    How about this first line:


    “Spellbound” Nora Roberts,

    Here’s one I really like:

    Eat and leave.
    That’s all she had to do. If grandma didn’t kill her first for being late.

    “Sushi for One?” Camy Tang

    Just the few words above had me emotionally invested in the story. I feel like I know these people, I sympathize with the woman who is late, and I wonder what grandma is going to do. This is just wonderful writing.

    Anyway, I can remember only one novel where I had a problem with the opening and first page. I find almost all the problems are in the middle of the book. Now, how do you fix the middle, therein lies the rub.



  15. Debby, thanks for a great post! I don't mind writing (or trying to write) one liners because I find they keep me on track when I actually sit down to write my story. They're helpful in keeping me focused. It's easy to get sidetracked and forget what the story is supposed to be about. Sometimes those rabbit trails seem really intriguing.

  16. Good post, Debby.

    Finally, something I'm doing right.

    I had to come up with a logline to put on my one-sheet for the ACFW conf.

    It was one of the few things I didn't have to struggle with.

    My story ideas are filed under a brief logline for a title. It's the only way I can remember them.

  17. Hi Everyone,
    I just got back from a trip to FT KNOX, KY, where I spoke to the Spouses and Community Club and had a couple booksignings. It was great to be with all military folks again. The event was a tribute to our veterans. Of course, I mentioned my military heroes -- my dad, my hubby and my son!

    I posted the blog on the road from a computer I wasn't used to. Could you hear me pulling out my hair?

    Today I was traveling so thus the delay in responding.

    Thanks to everyone who stopped by! Now let's talk writing!

  18. Hi Cathy,
    Yes, the irony was something that interested me as well. By including irony, the story starts with an interesting hook.

    Are you a Stephen King reader? He SCARES me! :) But the guy knows how to write. And, yes, he's the master of worst-case scenario!

  19. So true, Walt!!! I struggle with the one-line! Yikes, it's what I'm trying to write now . . . maybe that's why I'm pulling out my hair.

    BTW, you had a nice one-line that you pitched to Melissa Endlich. And it got you a request! Way to go!

  20. Hi Jessica,
    Randy Ingermanson has a Snowflake Principle that starts with one line, then grows into a paragraph, then a one-page snyopsis, which expands to a longer synopsis . . . story outline, etc. Check out his website. He's great!

    Seems everyone agrees about the importance of capturing that initial story concept in one sentence. Bob Mayer suggests taping it to your computer and reading it each day before you begin to write.

  21. Arianna,
    Bob Mayer holds writing reteats that run for about three or four days. The first day and a half, if not longer, is spent nailing down that one-liner.

    Later, that one-line can be used when you pitch your story. It can also be included in your cover letter and/or featured in your promotional material.

  22. Wow, Julie! Do you mean you create a one-line for each scene you're working on? If you stop back again, give us more details. I'm intrigued . . . and impressed!

  23. Hi Tina,
    I attended Michael Hague's workshop at RWA in 2007 and learned so much! I've read his book about five times and always come away with something new. He's fantastic!

  24. Hi Debby, fascinating post! I've done the "What if?" to jump start my creativity, but I've never started a story by coming up with one sentence that defines it. That doesn't mean I won't try it. But I have trouble boiling down a story to one sentence after it's written.


  25. Hi Melanie,
    Love that your hero will give up everything for the woman he loves!!! Perfect!!!

    Aren't your stories all historicals? So that socio-economic difference really plays into the conflict. Thanks for sharing how you come up with your ideas.

  26. Hi Missy! Kentucky was so beautiful . . . rolling hills, charming rural countryside, red barns, green pastures, trees ablaze with color. I especially loved your part of the state!

  27. Hi Gina,
    Good to see you on the loop today. I don't believe you about having a first line problem. Remember I critiqued your work! You're a fantastic writer. Whatever you're doing, keep it up! I want to read your stories in print, okay?

  28. Hi Carla,
    Love your mention of "birthing the baby!" That's appropriate and somewhat like I'm feeling at this point! :)

    Blake Snyder says High Concept is out . . . then he adds how important it can be to use High Concept to define our stories. (He admits never following what folks think is "out" or "in.") High Concept, as I know it, usually combines two well-known movies or books to highlight the uniqueness of our new tale . . . so Incredible Hulk meets Legally Blonde could be about a test-tube monster who falls in love with the law student who takes up his case. Just mentioning the TV/movies titles whets our imagination.

    BTW, I stink at High Concept. Maybe I don't watch enough movies.

  29. Hi Myra,
    I like the idea of irony as well. Makes me stretch a little farther to get the right story concept when I have to include irony.

    BTW, you write Women's Fiction. How do you usually start your stories?

  30. Hi Cheryl,
    Hey, keep your post for next month. I've just included a tiny tip of the iceberg of the info that's available. This stuff needs more depth. We could spend a whole month on capturing our story concept in one sentence and never exhaust the subject.

    BTW, love your new picture!

  31. Hi Vince,
    You wrote, "I like to bring the reader ‘up to speed’ as soon as possible, with a minimum of words, by ‘investing’ the reader (getting the reader emotionally and intellectually involved) in the story while providing a preview of the rewarding reading experience that is to come."

    Good for you! Sounds like you understand your role as author and how to provide a satisfying read for those who pick up your work. I like your idea of "rewarding" the reader, which you blogged about a few weeks ago. Great stuff!!! And so important.

  32. Hi Cara,
    You're right about the one-liner keeping you on track as you write! So important.

    Hey, Cara, since I'm struggling, would you mind writing my one-line for me? :)

  33. Ah, Anita Mae, you make it sound so easy. What a great idea to create a one-line for each story idea you're interested in developing.

    You must be very organized! Right now, I'm feeling just the opposite! :) Maybe that's because I have to unpack from my trip and my family's getting hungry and I don't know what I'm fixing for dinner.

  34. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for stopping by! When I heard Bob Mayer talk about the one-line, then read Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Principle, and listened to Michael Hague talk about pitching the single sentence, I knew it had to be important. That doesn't mean it's easy to write! :)

  35. Wonderful ideas, Debby! Condensing my novel world into one sentence is never easy to do. Maybe because my intial take to a story is much tamer than it needs to be.

    Keeping the simple concept of irony in mind, you make me realize why the bestsellers are the bestsellers.

    Thanks for reminding me of this important perspective : )

  36. Hi Audra,
    When you talked about condensing your novel into a one-line, you hit the nail on the head. As difficult as it may be to capture the story in one sentence before we write the book, seems it's almost impossible after our manuscript is written. Probably because we're caught up in the plot, all the twists and turns, how the characters grow, etc. But at the beginning, before we've written the first word, we only have the basic premise upon which that rich story will be built.

  37. Very sound advice. Trying to condense a 90k book into s sentence sounds like asking for the impossible but I know it's something that needs to be done. :)


  38. The long lines for the three Heartsong presents books that are releasing right now.

    Buffalo Gal (which, I think, the title works by your rules, too, Deb)

    A vegetarian and a cattle rancher go to war and fall in love.

    Clueless Cowboy

    A lady rancher finds a cranky city boy living off the land, she'd leave him alone like he wants if she didn't keep having to save his worthless life.

    For The Bossy Bridegroom

    He's a tyrant, she was born to be a doormat, now they want a healthy marriage but they were so happy before.

  39. Thanks, Mary, for posting great one-lines that say it all!!!