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What Is Your Story About, Anyway? Word, Phrase, Sentence, Equation

Barbara ProbstI recently volunteered to mentor an aspiring writer—part of my effort to pay back for all the help I’ve received—and began our conversation by asking what her novel was about.

Her answer went something like this: “Well, there’s this man who’s always … and then he immigrates to … and then later his wife dies … and so he decides to enlist in the Army … and then he finally realizes that … “

It reminded me oh-so-painfully of the first time I pitched to an agent at one of those “get published” conferences where hopeful writers pay XX dollars for XX minutes of an agent’s time.  I could see the agent sneaking a look at her watch and knew I was failing miserably to win her interest, so I blurted, “And wait, I forgot—there’s a dog in it too. But then he dies.” (Hey, it was heart-wrenching.)

Like my mentee, I didn’t understand aboutness.

When my mentee was finished with her report, I said, “So your book is about redemption.”

If I’m permitted one cliché per essay: her face lit up. That word had never occurred to her, but it was exactly what her story was about. Then I asked her what kind of redemption it was. Redemption that no one, including the protagonist, had ever thought would be possible? Earned redemption, through a personal sacrifice? Unearned redemption, through someone else’s act of courage, mercy, or generosity? Redemption by chance, the accidental side-effect of another event? Different kinds of redemption indicate different kinds of stories.

I began this way—with a word—because it’s how I think about my own books. In my experience, it’s easier to expand that one essential word into a phrase, a sentence, and a pitch than it is to try to locate it within a lengthy, often discursive summary.

I don’t want to give away a story that doesn’t belong to me, especially since my mentee’s book hasn’t been published yet, so I’ll use my own book to illustrate the series of aboutness distillations that I call word, phrase, sentence, and equation. And then I’ll expand it even further into a two-sentence summary of essential elements.

To be clear: Aboutness is not plot.  Plot is the way you deliver a story’s aboutness.

WordQueen of the Owls is about wholeness. If I had to pick one word, that would be it. In my mentee’s book, it was redemption. Yours might be agency, forgiveness, revenge, reunion, courage, or any large-scale idea.

PhraseQueen of the Owls is about the search to be a whole woman. In other words, what kind of “wholeness?”  Another book might be about making a family or community whole again.

Sentence: Queen of the Owls is about the search for one’s whole self, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

The sentence is in two parts. The first part states what is universal about the story—the large human theme that makes it a story that many, if not most, people could relate to. It answers the question: Why would this book be meaningful to me, as a human being? The second part states what is unique about the way I’m telling it. After all, there are plenty of books about the search for self—since there are only so many “large human themes”—so I need to explain what’s different about this one. It answers the question: Why should I read this particular book?

The first part of the sentence might not be explicitly stated—it’s often better if it isn’t—but you can find it by thinking about the protagonist’s motivation or goal. The protagonist’s desire—which, by definition, is the thing she lacks at the beginning of the story—is probably related to one of the great enduring themes such as courage, forgiveness, intimacy, self-acceptance, a second chance, a sense of belonging, and so on. The prodigal who finds his way home, the person who finds her voice after years of silence, the Scrooge who finds warmth and generosity. It’s often a journey from one thing to its opposite.

The second part of the sentence is equally important. Georgia O’Keeffe’s role in Queen of the Owls makes that second part of my sentence fairly easy to formulate, but every book has, or ought to have, something specific and interesting about it. It might be a setting, an era, a set of circumstances, an unusual character (“told through the eyes of a …”). If you really can’t find it, it might be worth adding—in an organic way, of course, that suits the story.

A useful exercise is to pull ten books off your shelf that you love and see if you can find that sentence on the jacket—or come up with it yourself.

Equation is another way of talking about the book’s premise, what it demonstrates about how life works or what it means to be human. If A, then B.

The equation that underlies the story in Queen of the Owls is: Embracing the parts of yourself you’ve neglected or denied leads to a sense of wholeness. If you do A (embrace the neglected parts of yourself), then B (wholeness) will result.

The story premise doesn’t have to be “true;” it just has to be true for the story. It might seem, at moments, as if the opposite relationship is about to be demonstrated—those setbacks, reversals, and “dark nights” that add to the tension—but at the end of the book, the premise has been validated.

For that reason, premises can vary. The “A” part of the equation might be paired with a different “B” in different stories. For one book, the premise might be: If you hold fast to your dream, it will eventually come true.  For another: If you hold fast to your dream, you’ll miss the real gift that is right in front of you.

Once you’ve formulated your story’s aboutness, you can map it onto the framework of a plot. For example, if your story is about belonging—finding connection and community—then the plot will tell what happens when someone who lacks connection, who doesn’t feel as if she belongs, goes through a series of experiences, tasks, and moments of choice that bring her, in the end, to a new sense of community.

Here’s a fictitious example of that kind of framework. It’s pretty formulaic, but that makes it easy to identify all the elements. Your book might be more nuanced, but you should still be able to articulate each of these elements.

This is a story about what happens when …

A person who

A concise statement about the way the protagonist is at the beginning of the story, the way she is wounded or incomplete, trapped or stuck, unsure or (mistakenly) content.

For example:  A woman who has settled into a solitary, risk-free life …

Does something, meets/encounters

What is the specific act or event that tips the character into the story, launches her out of life-as-it-is into the unknown?

For example:  takes a job in a small town on a remote lake

That begins to change her

What new condition is presented to her that sets the stage for the Big Moment? Embedded in this new condition is a conflict, or potential conflict.

For example: where she finds herself drawn into the lives of people who are different from anyone she’s ever known.

As a result, she must now

What must she choose, do, face, embrace, repair, overcome? What task will she have to carry out, what challenge will she have to meet, that will change her forever? What will it cost her (the stakes)?

For example: When an unexpected tragedy strikes the town, she must choose between her own familiar routines and the lives of those who are counting on her.

And discovers/finds/learns

What is the new understanding—about self, others, the world—that this climactic event brings? How does she change, as a result?

For example: Through daring to reach out, she finds a sense of connection and belonging that she didn’t know she was missing.

In short: A story is a journey, which means it has an arc. The protagonist starts out one way, goes through certain experiences that require her to make choices which have consequences, and is different at the end of the story. The way in which she is different is directly related to the story’s theme. If she starts out bitter and the theme is forgiveness, then she is more open and accepting at the end of the book than she was at the beginning. That’s what makes a book hang together and feel coherent—it’s how we, as readers, know what it’s about.

What about the story that you’re working on? What’s one word, one phrase, one sentence, that tells what it’s about? What is the A to B premise that it demonstrates? Were any of the five points in the last exercise difficult to identify? Did you have an Aha! moment while you did one of these exercises?

About Barbara Linn Probst [1]

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.