What is your book about in one word? If you can’t tell me in one, can you tell me in fewer than three?
Is it about love? Escaping? The hunt? Is it about revenge, regret, war, or greed? Or maybe its about something more esoteric, like spiritual growth.
A book about love can easily be broken down into smaller parts. We might start with a character who is starved for love. Why? Maybe she lost her mother when she was young and has always been starved for love, or perhaps her boyfriend just left her for another girl.
Once I establish her need for love, I might show how she is worthy of love, show her caring about other people, trying to become the kind of person that another person would fall for. Maybe she’s working out at the gym, volunteering at a clinic, studying to be a good mother or lawyer.
Then I might want to show how she fails at love—how she tried investing in a relationship with someone who wasn’t ready to commit, perhaps.
Then of course there is the first time the characters meet, they’re developing interest, the phases of the relationship that they go through, their growing intimacy.
When does the story end? Does it end with a kiss, a proposal, a night of frolicking, or a child being born?
You get to decide the details. You can decide which scenes to put in, which you feel might be left out. But really, the heart of the story all boils down to one word: love.
You should be able to do this with any story. For example, “Escape.” In the movie “The Terminator,” we have a monster from the future appear drop naked to the street. He goes into a biker bar and chooses a biker to steal some clothes from. He then begins to hunt for some woman named Sarah Conner. He starts going through the phone book, and killing anyone by that name.
As the story grows, we see Sarah escaping the terminator by hiding in a police station, accepting the help of another time traveler, learning “what” her attacker is, and so on, until she is finally caught and engineers a miraculous final escape that leaves her attacker dead.
But really, the whole movie is about one word, “Escape.”
We can do this with just about any great film or book. What is “The Fugitive” about. Let’s call it “The Hunt.” A crime is committed, a woman’s husband is convicted of murder, and he escapes. In this tale, the accused tries to use his freedom so that he can solve the mystery of who really did kill his wife. Meanwhile, the detective in the case runs a task force, trying to figure out what the fugitive will do next, where he will go, and how to capture him.
Once you can tell me in one or two words what your story is about, I can sit down with you and break the story into its components. Those components become the first act, second act, climax, and denouement, and so on. But each of those can easily then be broken down into smaller scenes.
But we really have to start by “writing with broad strokes.” Years ago I met a painter from China. In order to become a master of traditional art, he had to spend ten years painting first with a broad brush. Then he spent ten years painting with a medium brush. And finally he got to spend ten years mastering the small strokes with the small brush.
Many writers spend all of their time trying to paint with a small brush, and thus lose sight of the overall picture.
So what’s your book really about, in one word? Discover that word, and everything else will follow.
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