Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Can you sum up your story in a single word?

This is a great test for determining the central theme of any story: can you sum it up in a single word? Think I first read about this on John Rogers' blog, Kung Fu Monkey. He's written many great things, and also the Catwoman movie that starred Halle Berry [nobody's great all the time, it seems]. Spitballing in the writers' room for a TV series, Rogers and company had a game of One Word Summary. Here's an extract from the relevant blog post:
Rogers: The idea is, you're trying to develop your writing compass. It helps you figure out the theme in your own work, so you can always make sure you're on beam. When in doubt, you focus on that word. What's the movie about?

Boylan: What if you get it wrong?

Rogers: You can't get it wrong. It's whatever you think the movie's about. Sometimes the word you pick says more about you than the movie you're discussing.

Rieder: Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Rogers: "Change."

Rieder: Huh. I see that. The English Patient.

Rogers: "Loss."

Albert: Can you do it with TV shows? Maybe individual episodes.

Rogers: I don't know, I'd say Buffy is "solitude."

Boylan: I would have said "loneliness."

Rogers: Better, actually.

Berg: What was the one word in your head for Catwoman?

Downey: "Mortgage."
Snarked! Leaving aside the last exchange from above, the One Word Summary game is a great way of testing how well you know the story you're telling. If you can't sum it up in a single word, chances are you haven't discovered the essence yet. This came up on the Doctors mini-academy I did with the BBC in July. One of the team exercises was creating a Story of the Day from scratch in 45 minutes [boy, does that concentrate that mind].

The teams went away, creating characters and turning points aplenty. Then we came back and pitched the results to producer Peter Lloyd for his reactions. Aside from proving how quickly ideas can be developed out of thin air, it also reinforced the need to know what your story's about. When we finished our story, Peter asked us about it was about. From nowhere I came up with the answer: respect. Suddenly it all made sense, a real epiphany moment.

I've been reading a lot of Red Planet Prize entries and other scripts later, both for friends and professionally [i.e. for money]. Employing the One Word Summary game sorts out the muddled from the focused in moments. If I have to grope about to identify the theme, the writer's in some sort of trouble. I've been applying the same standard to my own work. Before going to the mini-academy, I put together ten story ideas in case I needed them.

I dug those back out at the weekend and was shocked to see how many simply don't hang together once I played One Word Summary with them. Interesting medical conditions, some intriguing character dilemmas - but what are the stories really about? If I couldn't sum them up in a single word, it told me I needed to take a step back. If you haven't found the essence of your story, it ain't ready for prime time [or 1.45pm on BBC1, as the case may be].

So, if you're writing a story at the moment or polishing your entry for the Red Planet Prize, ask yourself the same question: can you sum it up in a single word?


Piers said...


(Or, if you prefer...)


But I think the first is snappier.

Adaddinsane said...

Monsters! (All definitions)

That's why it's the title :-)

Good game. Hamlet = Revenge (?)

(Sent off my Red Planet entry today.)

Piers said...

Nah, Hamlet = Madness.