The One-Line Synopsis: How the Best Sellers Do It (Or At Least the People Who Write the List)

I’ve lifted these synopses from the January 18, 2015 New York Times Best Seller Lists.  In each one, I’ve identified any synopsis components with:  {W}orld, {C}haracter, {I}nciting Incident, {G}oal, {A}ction, {P}roblem, and {S}takes.  I’ve also indicated if the component is {i}mplicit…to my ears anyway.  And, if I wasn’t sure if a word or phrase indicated a component, I added a question mark.

They’re ordered from most amount of clear (no ‘?’) components to least amount of components, with each component counted only once.  Ready?  Which grab your attention…


a. John Puller {C}, a special agent with the Army {W?}, hunts {A} for his brother {Gi, S}, who was convicted of treason {Si} and has escaped {Ii} from prison {Pi, Wi}.  – The Escape by David Baldacci.

b. After a dust storm {Pi?} forces his crew to abandon him {I, Pi?}, an astronaut {C} embarks on a dogged quest {A} to stay alive {G, S} on Mars {W, Pi}.  – The Martian by Andy Weir

c. Detective {Wi} Alex Cross’s {C} family {S} is kidnapped {I, Gi, Ai} by a madman {P, Wi?} who wants to turn Cross into a perfect killer {S}.  – Hope to Die by James Patterson

d. A boy {C} with a facial deformity {Pi} enters {I} a mainstream {Pi, Gi, Si} school {W, Ai?}.  – Wonder by R.J. Palacio


e. The Boston {W} detective {W} Jane Rizzoli {C} and the medical examiner {W} Maura Isles {C} probe {A} the murder {Ii} of a big-game hunter {Pi, Gi, Wi?}.  – Die Again by Tess Gerritsen

f. Young {Pi?} and in love {S}, Ifemelu {C} and Obinze {C} leave military ruled Nigeria {Ii, Pi?} for the West {Wi}. Ifemelu finds {A} academic success {G?} in America {W}, while Obinze plunges {A} into a dangerous {Pi?} undocumented {Pi} life in London {W}.  – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

g. A young cellist {C} falls into {A} a coma {P, Wi?, Gi, Si} after she suffers an accident {I}.  – If I Stay by Gayle Forman


h. In this fable, a Spanish shepherd boy {C} ventures {A} to Egypt {W} in search of treasure {G} and his destiny {S}.  – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho


i. A downsized {Ii} Wall Street lawyer {C} joins {A} a legal clinic {W} in a small Virginia town {W}.  – Gray Mountain by John Grisham

j. A bookstore {W?} owner {C}, depressed after the death of his wife {Pi?} and the theft {Pi?} of a prized volume {I}, is given a chance to make over {A} his life {Gi, S}.  – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

k. Two friends {C, Si} are trained {A}, one to be pure {G?}, one to be wicked {G?} {P}.  – The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani


l. An inexperienced {Pi?} college {W} student {C} falls in love {A, Gi?, Si} with a tortured man {C, P?} who has particular sexual tastes {P? S?}; the first book in a trilogy.  – Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

m. Fresh from a stay at a psychiatric hospital {Ii?}, a newspaper reporter {C} returns {Ii?} (reluctantly) {Pi?} to her hometown {W, Pi?} to cover {A, Gi?} the murders {Pi?} of two girls {Si?}.  – Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

n. A robot {C} signs up {Ii?, Ai} for a fifth-grade class {W}.  – House of Robots by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein


o. A historical {Wi} novel about orphans {Ci} swept off the streets of New York {W} and sent to the Midwest {W} in the 1920s {W}.  – Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

p. The lives of a blind French girl {C} and a gadget-obsessed German boy {C, Pi?} before and during World War II {W, Pi?, Si?}.  – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

q. A genetics professor {C, Wi?} with Asperger’s syndrome {Pi?} becomes involved {Ai} with an unconventional {Pi?} woman {Gi?, Si?}.  – The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion


r. The continuing {Ai?} relationship {Gi?, Si?}, over five decades, between a disgraced {Pi?} clergyman {C, Wi?} and a drug-addicted {Pi?, Wi?} musician {C, Wi?}.  – Revival by Stephen King

s. The Pakistani {W?} girl {C} who won {Gi?} the Nobel {Wi?}.  – I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai


First, please note:  My critiquing of a one-liner is IN NO WAY a critique of the story itself.  I haven’t even read most of these.

Second, a suggestion: If possible, open another window for the synopses, because I didn’t rewrite them below.

Anyway, onto what’s interesting…

1. More components = more intriguing.

Obvious?  At least in general?  At first I had these ordered from least components to most, but when I reread, the least-component ones were so boring and not synopsisy (<–coined) that I was convinced that this post was an unhelpful waste of time.  So I reordered them from most components to least.  And now, at least to me, it makes writing a compelling synopsis look easy.  Heh.  Oh well.

2. Some components have more impact than others, with the most important being Stakes.

Take the one-liner for Gray Mountain (i).  It has 4 components, 4 explicit components.  But it doesn’t include Goal.  Or Stakes.  And after reading it I find myself wondering… So what?

Same with Die Again (e).  It has 6 components, 3 of them implicit.  Its approach is to heavily and explicitly emphasize Character and World, and the only component it is missing is Stakes.  And again as I read it I think… So what?  Murders happen quite frequently. Why should I take 8 hours to read about this one?

Now look at Hope to Die (c).  It’s got all 7 components, but 4 of them are implied, and the emphasis is on Stakes.  I don’t normally read James Patterson or his genre, but after doing this exercise I might go check out this book. The bad guy wants to make Cross into a killer? A perfect killer?  I’m intrigued.

3. An unclear or vague component isn’t as intriguing as a clear and specific component.

Look at The Martian (b).  Look at its Problem.  Yes the character is on Mars, which (we have to assume) is unknown and doesn’t have a human-friendly atmosphere.  Being abandoned on Mars probably sucks, but it’s vague, and so I’m left wondering: What threat is he really, actually facing?  Is the atmosphere the Problem?  Or are we going to encounter Martians, like the title suggests?  Because if I KNOW that the atmosphere is the Problem then I start imagining a guy running out of oxygen, and I start thinking He’s got to find a way to breathe. How’s he going to do that? 

I am much more intrigued, as a potential audience member, when I’m compelled to imagine than when I’m left wondering.

Interestingly, the character probably faces all sorts of problems in this story:  the atmosphere, the Martians, AND the guys who left him behind.  And that’s all good once I’m reading the story.  But in the one-liner, I think it would be more compelling to highlight one of Mars’ problems than to instead be vague because there are so many problems from which to choose.  And I’d highlight the problem most vivid.

Now what about clarity in the Character component?  Look at Orphan Train (o).  Is it just me, or would the one-liner be more interesting just by changing “orphans” to “an orphan”?

4. Originality can break a story out of its genre.

Look at Hope to Die (c) again.  Again, I don’t normally read James Patterson’s genre.  I’m assuming the stakes of a family kidnapped are probably great for the genre’s readers, but it’s a bit of a turnoff for me. Still . . . the bad guy wants to make Cross into a perfect killer?  That’s interesting even to me, a genre outsider.

5. Is the Split One-Liner Caution confirmed?

Look at Americanah (f).  Wouldn’t this be more clear and interesting if it focused on one character? This could perhaps be achieved by phrasing the second character’s story in terms of being a help or a hindrance to the first character’s goal.  Not having read this, I don’t know how to do that specifically, but… something to think about.

6. Some details add components, and some add confusion.

Look at If I Stay (g).  Is it just me, or does the inclusion of “cellist” muddy the goal and the stakes?  When indicating what components were included, I couldn’t decide whether goal (coming out of the coma) and stakes (living a full life or not) were implied as written or not implied because the goal and stakes actually had to do with being a cellist.  Not having read this, I don’t know.  But I decided she’s got to come out of the coma to be a cellist…probably.  So I decided they were implied.  But it could be clearer.

Now look at Wonder (d).  Look at the word “mainstream.”  Look at all the components it hits with just one specific detail.  It implies a goal:  to succeed in a no-special-treatment school (despite being different, as indicated by the character component).  It implies the problem: mainstream kids. They can be cruel.  It implies the stakes:  Will they accept him or not?  This one-liner gets me to feel for this kid and it’s due mostly to that one, specific word.

7. Be clear about what the Inciting Incident is and what the main story Action is… in your own head and in the synopsis.

Look again at If I Stay (g):  ‘A young cellist falls into a coma after she suffers an accident.” I haven’t read this yet, but I’ve heard about it.  Here, it sounds like the accident is the Inciting Incident, and falling into a coma is the main story Action.  But, from what I’ve heard of the story, the Inciting Incident is actually falling into the coma and the true story Action is debating whether or not to come out of the coma or to die.  And as I type that, that gives me tingles.  Which, as I mentioned in the Concept post, is one of my personal How-do-I-know-if-it’s-compelling? tests.  The story’s still doing just fine, but imagine how it would do if the NYTBS list gave it a proper one-liner.

8. An explicit Inciting Incident is often a sign of synopsis laziness.

I’ve already said my thoughts on the inciting incident: great as a tool to get your synopsis started, but not necessary to include explicitly in the final version.  Note all of the 7-component synopses.  Most of them include the inciting incident implicitly.  The only one that includes it explicitly is the The Martian, and they could have instead said, “An abandoned astronaut….” That would have implied the inciting incident and provided space to include more specific words about the Problem.

9. Infusing your concept/one-liner with irony is worth the effort.

Hope to Die (c) again.  A madman wants to turn a great detective into the perfect killer.  Gets me wondering how’s he plans to do that.  And even though I know he won’t succeed–because, come on–I still kind of wonder if he’ll get close to succeeding.

The School for Good and Evil (k).  If these two kids are friends, and I’m assuming best friends, how are they going to diverge so much as to become polar opposites?  And how will that affect their friendship?  Evil’s not conducive to friendship.

House of Robots (n).  A robot signs up for 5th grade.  How’s that gonna work? Also, if he’s a robot, why does he need to go to school?

Fifty Shades of Grade (l). An inexperienced virgin versus a guy with “particular sexual tastes.”

Wonder (d) again.  Irony is why that word “mainstream” works so well.

The Rosie Project (q). A professor with Asperger’s becomes involved with not just any girl, but an unconventional girl.

I am Malala (s).  Not just any girl wins the Nobel; a Pakistani girl wins it.

10. You tell me!

See anything else interesting?  Tell us in the comments!


These stories I’ve read, so let’s see if we can make their NYTBS synopses stronger.

A 16-year-old heroine {C} faces {A} the medical {Wi} realities of cancer {Ii, P} {Gi, Si}.  – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I think the opportunity here is that this one-liner is such a downer, but the story, while emotional, is not.  The tone is wrong, which is one of our premise cautions.  Another opportunity is that this one-liner implies that the goal and the stakes are just to survive, and while that’s true, it’s not the half of it.  Further, like with “Mars,” the one-liner is letting “Cancer” stand for all the problems.  But in this case, “cancer” gets us imagining all the horrors of dealing with cancer, which leads us in a less appealing direction than where this story actually goes (even though cancer has its say).  In short, we could be more specific.

So, how about instead:

A 16yo girl {C} falls in love {S} with a boy she meets {I} in a cancer {P} support group {W} while planning a trip {A} to see her favorite author {G}.

???  What do you think?  Better?

Next one:

A woman disappears {I, Gi?} from her Missouri {W} home on her fifth anniversary {Si?}; is her bitter, oddly evasive {Pi?, Si?} husband {C} a killer {Si, Pi}?  – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Here, we have a split one-liner, but instead of having split actions, we have split characters.  We don’t know who to root for.  Is it the cops or the husband?  Or the wife?  Also if we could find a way to hint at the story’s designing principle (next week’s tool), we’d start getting at what makes this story so different from the typical murder mystery.

How about instead:

When a wife disappears {I, Gi} from her Missouri home {W} on her fifth anniversary {Si?}, the oddly evasive {Pi?} husband {C} tries to put together {A} the clues she left behind {Pi?} before he’s arrested {S, Pi, Gi} for her murder.

What do you think?  I debated saying “When a vindictive wife….” But it’s my personal preference not to give away anything that happens in the second half of a story and not to confirm something I want the reader to remain uncertain about while reading.  So I did not.  Even though the husband and his sister think the wife is vindictive from go, it’s more engaging if we’re compelled to question their reliability on that fact.

Now, you could say that this one-liner gives away the husband’s innocence, but I don’t think so.  Reasons his innocence remains a mystery include: (1) It’s ingrained in the brain that the spouse did it; they’re always the number one suspect until they’re not anymore, no matter how innocent they (or a one-liner) initially claim to be.  (2) The book does a great job from the beginning to make you question what’s reliable despite what you think you know.  And (3) I think one-liners go out the window the moment you start reading.

So the question is, which one-liner is more likely to get you to read?  For me, again, not a loyal mystery-genre reader, it’s the second one.  How about you?  How would you one-line this story?

That’s it for me!

How about you? What insights do you see in reviewing these one-liners? Tell us in the comments!

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We’ll take a look at our concept examples from last week and see if we can flesh them out.

Bring yours too!



6 thoughts on “The One-Line Synopsis: How the Best Sellers Do It (Or At Least the People Who Write the List)

  1. In your article you wrote that the more components included in the premise line, the more interesting it becomes, and you also stated that stakes is the most important component of the 7 components.
    Could you list the remaining 6 components in order of significance, please?
    Could the significance of each component vary according to the sort of story being described in the one liner?


    1. Hey, Val, this is a great question. I had some gut reactions, but then I had some other inklings . . . and I find I’m still noodling it now. Give me a few more days? I’ll get back to you soon. (Nudge me if I don’t.)


    2. Hey, Val, this answer is running long, and I think other people might be interested, so I’m turning it into a post. It’s scheduled for Tuesday morning, to give me some time to read through it again and check for typos and whatnot. So look for it Tuesday!


  2. This was quite insightful, so only a couple of comments.

    Fables and faerie stories adhere to their own laws of reality different from the realities of other storytelling modes, and readers who refuse to accept this tend to hate them, so I think that in your example of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, the fact that it is a fable would also be {W}.

    Concerning The Rosie Project:
    those of us who are neurotypicals tend to comprehend and interpret the world differently than do those of us who have some form of ASD such as Asperger’s Syndrome, so my suspicion is that the professor’s Aspergers might be more {W} in that the woman he’s involved with would have to “enter his world” metaphorically, and as a parallel, her unconventionality might be more {W} and require him to do the same for her. For that matter, I think the same might be said for the world created by the paradigm-transforming joie de vivre and exuberance of Auntie Mame from the famous stage play and films. (After all, the {W} is clearly not a literal planet or a literal secondary reality.)


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