Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Story, and How to Tell One When You Write

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Story is basically what the story is about. Doh, right? But we have to have a bottom line. A short one.

Imagine you're at a writers' conference and an editor or agent asks you to tell them what your story is about so that they will sell (agent) or buy (editor) it and make you a gazillionaire. 


But that’s not the only reason you want to "get your story straight" – although it’s certainly a huge one. It's also a road map to get you where you want to go. If I asked you to go to Madagascar, wouldn't you at the very least look at a map? Why do we think we should write books in a haphazard way? 

So, think about what your story is ABOUT. Is it a story about true love? Or murder in the first degree? Maybe it’s about a group of widows who become friends when they find out their husbands were all in the Mafia. Or a story about dragons and princesses and evil wizards. 

Or any of a million other stories. Any of them are. It’s just a matter of YOU, as the writer, being able to figure it out early.

You must get your story straight. Before you spend weeks, months, years creating that masterpiece that might have huge holes that a little planning might have found. 

So, write a sentence in less than 50 words that:
  • Clearly states what the book is about.
  • Introduces a protagonist (hero) and his or her compelling need
  • Introduces the antagonist (obstruction and/or villain) and his or her compelling need
  • Shows the conflict between the two opposing forces
  • Shows enough how it all works out.

Whew! That’s a lot in 50 words, isn’t it? But it can be done, even if it takes several tries. Or a hundred tries!

So, let’s start with a story you may remember:

An unhappy teenager who thinks there has to be a better place “over the rainbow”, discovers that running away isn’t the answer to her problems.

Just this short sentence – twenty-one words – tells us a huge amount about Dorothy Gale and gets us almost half-way through The Wizard of Oz. It isn’t the whole story, of course, but it’s a start. It introduces Dorothy and her WHAT (a happy place), her WHY (because anywhere has to be better than where she is) and her WHY NOT (her normal way of handling things – running away – won’t fix anything).

Next, the middle. 

Transported to a wonderful and frightening world with wizards and witches…

Not much there in words but, since the middle is by far the largest portion of the book, there’s a lot of good stuff. For the ‘what is the book ABOUT’ sentence, this gives us enough information. We know that, based on the first part, she has a lot of adventures and lessons coming up. 

And, last? The end.

…Dorothy must find the happiness inside before she can click her heels and go home.

Let’s put it all together. 

An unhappy teenager who thinks there has to be a better place “over the rainbow”, discovers that running away isn’t the answer. Transported to a wonderful and frightening world with wizards and witches, Dorothy must find the happiness inside before she can click her heels and go home.

46 words. And, I could easily shorten it, if I needed to. 

This isn’t perfect, by any means. In fact, if I removed some specific details (rainbow, Dorothy), this could be a completely different story in a completely different time or place. 

It’s just the idea that it tells the story – and what it’s ABOUT – in a clear, concise and understandable way. Once you've created this consise, descriptive, and evocative sentence, you'll have a both a selling tool AND a road map. 

Make sense?

So, tell me your story. What’s it ABOUT? 


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Thanks for a great post! Here's my attempt at a less than 50 word explanation of my story. Your feedback is welcomed and appreciated!

    A successful wife, mom, and Christian parenting expert faces an identity crisis when her teenage daughter runs away from home … and from God. Beth Holbrook’s marriage and career crumbles, forcing her to look deep within and find her identity in Christ alone.

    1. Yay!!! Good the first time! These can be hard to do, but you made it look easy. :)

      Next step, if you choose to accept, is to lengthen it. This time, make it 250 words, which is about the length of a one-page synopsis. Use this as the first sentence, then write a long paragraph about Beth. The next paragraph should be about her daughter (if she's the main antagonist). Third paragraph can be about the path she takes to find her identity.

      See how it works? It's so much easier, once you know what your story is about.

      Good job!

  2. Good clear instruction! Thanks. I tried it for my Middle-grade kids mystery. 50 words!

    A young girl and her friends at church search for the person who's stealing people's Bibles. They split up, search for clues, interview victims, compare notes, and learn tough lessons about making accusations. In the end they volunteer at a homeless shelter and help an old woman find her way.

  3. Very good! So, can you see your story unfolding in front of you? Of course, as the story is written, this sentence may change a little. Or a lt. Doesn't matter as long as it goes forward.