Thursday, July 28, 2016

Writing a One-Sentence Summary by Katy Duffield

When I read writing blogs, one of my favorite things is to find is an exercise or activity that is
immediately useful to my writing—something that I can directly apply to my work-in-progress. So as I thought about ideas to share, I hoped to come up with something that was both immediately applicable and something a bit out of the ordinary. That brought me to one-sentence summaries.

One-sentence summaries are often used in query letters or when pitching your manuscript, but in this case, I’m suggesting that you write a one-sentence summary while still in the drafting stage or even before you even before you write the first word of a manuscript.

I have found that if I cannot distill my story down to a single sentence, I’m not ready to write. Or maybe if I’m drafting or revising a picture book or a chapter book and I’m running into problems and just can’t get it to come together, writing a one-sentence summary can provide the direction I need to solve those issues.

There are lots of different strategies to writing one-sentence summaries. Over the years, I’ve collected several different methods. Try them out and see which ones work best for you. And be forewarned, the seemingly simple little rascals can sometimes be truly frustrating to pin down! The key is to focus on simplicity while still hitting the required marks, and resist the urge to include too many details.

Let’s take a look at a few one-sentence summary templates and some examples:

1) [character’s name] was a ________ who more than anything wanted ________________ but couldn’t because ___________________, until _________________ happened.

*Example from Paul Schmid’s picture book HUGS FROM PEARL:

Pearl was a porcupine who more than anything wanted to give her friends hugs but couldn’t because she was just too darned prickly, until she devised a creative way to both protect her friends and to get her much desired hugs.

2) (Character) wants (concrete want) because (abstract want), but (conflict) stands in the way. [from novelist Cynthia Lord]

*Example from L. Frank Baum’s THE WIZARD OF OZ:   

Dorothy wants to return home to Kansas because she’s come to realize the importance of family, but her struggles in the strange land of Oz stand in her way.

3) X is Y until Z:
X = the character
Y = World/Circumstances
Z = Inciting Incident
[from agent John Cusick]

So, X (your main character) is Y (in the general place, time, circumstances of the protagonist’s every day life when the novel begins) until Z (the thing that makes the story a story happens).


Harry is a sad British boy until he discovers he is a wizard and is whisked away to Hogwarts, a wizard school.

4) Begin your one sentence summary with the word “when” and let it lead you to “until” or “but.” When this happens, then this happens, until this happens.
[This is my personal favorite.]

*Example from my picture book LOUD LULA:

When a little ol’ southern gal arrives for her first day of kindergarten, her oversized voice wreaks ten kinds of havoc, but before the day is over, her giant voice comes in mighty handy.

One-sentence summaries can help us stay on track. They can help us make sure we’re staying true to our story and not getting lost on too many tangents. They can also help us identify the core elements of our stories and help us connect the dots between those elements. And as a bonus, they’re also great to use in queries, in pitch sessions, or when someone asks, “Hey, what’s your book about?”

Special thanks to Lynne Marie for inviting me to write this post!

Katy is the award winning author of more than twenty children’s books including the picture books Farmer McPeepers and His Missing Milk Cows, illustrated by Steve Gray (Rising Moon Children’s Books), Loud Lula, illustrated by Mike Boldt (Two Lions, 2015), and the forthcoming Aliens Get the Sniffles, Too, illustrated by K.G. Campbell (Candlewick Press, forthcoming 2017).

Many of her books are nonfiction leveled readers written for educational markets. Katy has also written nonfiction books for older readers and for many children’s magazines. A full listing of her published credits can be viewed at
Katy writes from her home in northeast Florida.

If you’re a picture book writer, Katy critiques picture book manuscripts. For details, please visit the Critiques page on her website.

Visit Katy online at or follow her on Twitter @KatyDuffield.

Katy’s most recently published picture book:


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by My Word Playground, @Rebecca Gomez - hope to have you and your fabulous books over at the playground some day!

  2. Replies
    1. Glad to have you here, too, @Andria Rosenbaum. Hope you have you and your books visit one day, too!

  3. What a terrific strategy from Katy. Thanks!!

    1. Glad to have you here at My Word Playground, dear Dee -- and one day we'll be promoting you and your books! XOXO

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Heather Ayris Burnell -- just adore you and Sub It Club :) Hope to have you featured here one day, too!