What's your story about?

I had an interesting discussion the other night about the difference between a plot summary, and what a story's about. Being able to say what a story's about is the more important of the two, because anyone can repeat a plot, but it takes ability to understand what drives 90,000 words. It means not knowing what happens, but why it happens.

Often when people ask what a story's about, they hear in reply a blow-by-blow account of the plot; because plot is easy, but plot is the wrong answer.

To say what the story's about, describe what happens, but mention not more than one line of plot.

My only hints for doing it are to write a blurb that would fit on the back cover. Then think really hard about what's the core of the blurb. The one line of plot you're allowed is the crucial event, whatever it might be. I make no claims for expertise on this by the way, except that I've had to do it a few times. Eleven times, actually, only a few weeks ago.

Here's an example for Macbeth.

What happens:

Well, there are these three witches, and they meet a guy called Macbeth, and...Macbeth and his wife murder the King, and then...bubble bubble boil and trouble...and then there's a killing spree...then a ghost turns up at dinner...then they get attacked by walking trees...

Here's what the story is about:

A respected power couple of the Scottish nobility are so consumed by ambition, that they throw away their ethics to murder their King and sieze the throne. Their crime creates an imbalance in the world which drags themselves and all of Scotland into tragedy.

Feel free to disagree with my about, but even if you do it's clear this is not plot, or if it is, it's the very core with the emphasis on motivation and consequence.

My dear agent has threatened to manually strangle me if I ever dare give anyone advice on how to get published because, you know, I am famous for my skills at querying. However I will risk almost certain harm by pointing out that in a query it's probably better to say what your story's about, and not try to summarise the entire plot.

Dear Ms Reid,

The Cawdor Crisis is a paranormal political thriller set in mediaeval Scotland [yeah, like that's ever going to sell]. A respected power couple of the Scottish nobility are so consumed by ambition, that they throw away their ethics to murder their King and sieze the throne. Their crime creates an imbalance in the world which drags themselves and all of Scotland into tragedy.

...then carry on with the mechanical bits of the query...

Here's an exercise to try. Feel free to use the comments. If you're writing one, tell us what your book is about.


Nighfala said...

Oh, my, this is a tough one. Once someone asked me what my story was about when I was in my early stages of writing it, and I couldn't even say. I had so many things swirling in my head that I was trying to sort out, I just stared dumbly for a moment and then said, "It's complicated."

I actually found help by looking at the little one-line movie descriptions on cable TV.

So, what's mine about? Still working on that, but the closest I've gotten so far is...

A Ranger and a lady's maid try to stop a renegade prince with magical powers from murdering his older brother and overthrowing his father in order to gain the kingdom for himself.

Nighfala said...

Actually, I should probably trim the last part of that. No need to mention the king.

"...stop a renegade prince with magical powers from murdering his older brother in order to gain the kingdom for himself."

scaryazeri said...

I struggle with this, too. But the very short story I wrote for Rammenas(only 500 words) is easier to describe- it is about mother's love. That's what it is about, I think. It is easier, when it is so short and already finished. :)

_*rachel*_ said...

This is actually for a short story, but why not?

In the midst of an interstellar civil war, a Loyalist admiral finds he's falling in love--with the traitor he's bringing to trial.

Alternate ending: Unfortunately for him, she thinks her feelings for him are Stockholm Syndrome.

Then there's the story I'm sending to magazines at the moment:

Forced to spy for a brutal dictatorship, Brooklyn seeks refuge in her nation's historic enemy.

My compliments to the writers above me--good "about"s!

Peter Rozovsky said...

And its Scottish setting is sure to appeal to fans of Ian Rankin!

"With `Macbeth,' the story of a man sent spiraling into murder and despair by his own weakness and the prodding of a femme fatale, the versatile English genre writer William Shakespeare proves he is as at home in crime drama as he is in romance and historical stories."

Read more here.
 Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Jenna Wallace said...

This is such a tough exercise, but so completely necessary. I once heard it describe this way: Pretend you are at a cocktail party and someone asks what your book is about. You have 30 seconds before his eyes glaze over.

Here goes for my novel THE SHADOW SCRIBE:
Soon after a woman moves into an old house in the Scottish countryside, she starts telling a story in her sleep. For the sake of her sanity and her marriage, she must find out what the story is and why she is telling it.

Gary Corby said...

Looking at other blurbs to learn from is a great idea, Christine. I should have thought to mention that. Thanks.

That sounds like a fun story!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Scary, yes, I saw your mini-story. Very good!

I agree with the "mother's love".

dolorah said...

Hmm, good points to consider. I've been honing my skill at tell ing people what my first novel is about for a couple years. Still working on it. But . .

A young woman finds love with a man too much like her alcholic father, and must confront the dysfunction of her childhood in order to make healthy decisions for her future.

Nope, still working on it.


Gary Corby said...

Those are good abouts yourself, Rachel. I like the alternate ending in your first. I'd love to know more about your second.

Gary Corby said...

Peter, that is simply brilliant! I'll be laughing about that review notice for days.

You're the one should be writing these posts, not me!

Loretta Ross said...

This got me thinking about a fantasy novel I was writing in my head before I got distracted by the mystery that's with Janet now. Keeping in mind that I don't have word one on paper yet, here goes:

Sir Walter Treveaux is a disappointed dreamer; a middle-aged gentleman farmer growing old in the shadow of a legendary ancestor. But when a good deed and a bad storm combine to turn a routine journey into an epic quest, he finds that he is a better man than he ever imagined, and that everything he really wants, he already has.

Gary Corby said...

Jenna, I _love_ that about! Now I want to know what story she's telling, and why. That's _exactly_ what the about needs to do. Very cool!

Gary Corby said...

That's a pretty good try for someone who thinks they don't quite have it yet, Donna!

You might not be totally happy with your about yet, but right or wrong, I do feel I have a good idea what your book's about, and that after all is the objective.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta! That sounds interesting! I wonder what Janet's reaction would be? Is this epic fantasy?

Loretta Ross said...

I'd be afraid of Janet's reaction. *G* I'm supposed to be working on the sequel to my mystery. (Cop buys a long-abandoned house and finds an 80-year-old skeleton in the coal bin.)

Gary Corby said...

The cat's out of the bag now! Janet does read this blog from time to time.

Why not tell her this book in fact is your sequel? Just explain that hidden deep beneath Wyoming is a secret time machine, through which your protagonist travels to meet Sir Walter.

_*rachel*_ said...

Currently all the "more" there is to know is that an ex-CIA officer didn't quite get the spy stuff I was talking about.

Time to revise again...

Thanks for doing this post--it's lots of fun! Here's one for the novel I need to re-re-restart after I finish these short stories:

Little-known facts about Sammi: her best friend helps slaves escape the country, and her half-sister led the recent slave rebellion. As the best slavehunter in the nation, it's Sammi's job to bring both of them to justice. By now, a quiet farm is starting to look rather tempting.

Matthew Delman said...

Ahem. Love the abouts above me -- particularly Loretta's (of course, I have a fascination with people who have famous ancestors trying to make their own name. Odd, that). I want to read all these stories now!

Anywho, here's my attempt:

Half-nymph Moriah Rowani makes a promise to her dying father, and is firmly thrust onto the most-wanted list of the evil fanatical priests and corrupt government that turned her homeland into a mechanical, purity-obsessed hell. But when she discovers that she is a pawn in a cynical power play set in motion fifteen years before by her mother, Moriah is faced with two choices. Run, like she's done for years, or become the light in the darkness.

Welshcake said...

I think I might have too much plot in my about?

In Victoriana, a future version of Britain, Queen Victoria is worshiped as a goddess and Victorian values are upheld. A particular favourite is “children should be seen and not heard”. Children are constantly spied on and generally forbidden to do anything fun. As for teenagers, well, Victoriana considers adolescence a disease. Luckily, there’s a cure – adjustment, which fast tracks children to adulthood.

12 year old Gemma Piper is looking forward to her 13th birthday and adjustment day. She can’t wait for the freedom adulthood will bring. But everything changes when Gemma discovers she’s in line for a very special adjustment. One that’ll leave her messed up, not grown up.

Nighfala said...

I'm going to politely disagree about "a mother's love." I think that's more of a theme than a plot.

For example, my story has a theme about a younger son's feelings of rejection from his father. But the way he acts out those feelings is by trying to kill his older brother.

An example of an "about" using a mother's love could be, "A welfare mom battles the local school district to get appropriate accommodations made for the education of her autistic daughter."

Donna, I feel your pain. It's so hard to convey the essential information concisely, and still sound different from all the other books out there.

Nighfala said...

Gary, we've gotten into a little discussion on my blog as to what this kind of short summary is actually called, and what it is used for. I assume this is what is known as a "pitch." Someone else called it a "logline" and said it's meant to be the first line of your query.

Loretta Ross said...

Thanks, Matthew! I'd like to read yours, too. In fact, a lot of these sound interesting!

And, Gary, a time machine in Wyoming? Don't be silly!

Everyone knows all the time machines are at the top secret government UFO research base outside of Roswell, Mew Mexico! ;)

Gary Corby said...

Sorry Loretta, my mistake!

Susanna Fraser said...

I'm going to try this for a manuscript I've only just started writing, in hopes it'll help me figure out just what my story is really about:

As an impoverished young army officer on colonial service, Toran Beymarris knows it's the height of arrogance to believe his country's gods have any special purpose for *him*. But as the Oracles grow increasingly specific, he must determine if he has been chosen to be his beloved homeland's salvation...or its doom.

The new manuscript is my first attempt at epic fantasy. All my previous manuscripts were historical fiction or alternative history. I'm not sure how well the above actually works, because I'm trying to do so much all at once. With my previous books, I could just say, "In 1805 England," and then focus on character and story hook. Here I'm trying to worldbuild as well, and I have to say it's tough to do all that in just a sentence or two.

scaryazeri said...


You have seen it?? It is not up yet?

Gary Corby said...

Woops, ignore me Scary. I was thinking of a totally different story, not yours at all. Sorry!

That's what I get for doing comments at 2am.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Rachel, glad you're enjoying it.

It's funny, to me at least, and very unpredictable, what people enjoy. I've posted some things I thought people would love, and everyone ignores. Then there are other posts I thought were mere trivia which are instantly popular. The one about Word searches is a good example. Goes to show I have no future in marketing.

Gary Corby said...

Welshcake, that's a really interesting premise!

How far along are you with that? Because if you're still working on it, a tighter about will come to you. Yes, you've put in a lot of background, but that's because your world is quite unusual and that's part of the interest.

Gary Corby said...

That's a really good point Christine!

The difference between theme and what the book's about: you'll notice I carefully tiptoed around the whole issue by not mentioning theme at all. That's because it's the sort of thing that can lead to arguments about how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

Personally I believe in working to a theme, or rather I find it after about the third revision, and I'd say the theme is the underlying subtext, whereas the about is what drives the plot. But then there are those who'll tell you that's the same thing, and others who'll tell you writers have no place worrying about themes and should stick to telling a great story.

So I guess it's personal preference how you see it. This is probably worth a post all on its own some time, so thanks for the idea!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susan! Anyone who calls their blog Conversations With Dead People must be capable of an interesting story.

Considering you've barely begun, that's an impressive about. I'd love to know if it's fundamentally the same about when you've finished.

Taymalin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Taymalin said...

I'm only 5k or so into the first draft of this one, so it could change before it's finished.

A witch discovers that her brother murdered the woman whose ghost now haunts her. She discovers that this isn't the first time he has used magic to kill, and she’s not sure she can put her duty to protect the innocent above the loyalty and love she has for her family. But one thing is certain, if she fails to do just that, her brother will kill again.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taymalin, that's a very interesting premise! I hope you finish the book, it sounds like something I'd want to read.

Like Susan, for a story that's only begun, that's impressive. There's no way I could have written an about so early.

I'm guessing those of you with early abouts or blurbs also outline?

Can I just say how struck I am by all the interesting ideas everyone is writing?

_*rachel*_ said...

No outlines, unless you count drafts. The space-romance one pulls from four related short-shorts I wrote 2-3 years ago, the spy one is so short an outline wouldn't matter, and the slave hunter one has 37K+ in at least 2 drafts, and the story's still changing.

Drafts so bad I rewrote them from scratch, yes. Outline, vomit.

Gary Corby said...

OK, Rachel, I'm convinced!

Welshcake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Welshcake said...

Gary – thanks. Although I always worry “interesting premise” translates as “are you bonkers, that’ll never work!”

The MS is complete, though I am redrafting it AGAIN (have lost count of which number draft I’m on). It worries me that I have trouble distilling it. Could mean I have too much going on?

Thanks for this blog post. It’s great reading other people’s “abouts”.

Nighfala said...

Gary, I don't outline. I had no idea what my story was going to be about until I started writing it. Each day was a surprise as to what would happen next, and I actually start with themes and then work them into the plot.

So I'm just doing everything backwards, I guess. But this is my first novel and I've been stewing over it for three years, writing a little here and there in my "spare" time. So I've had lots of time to ruminate while doing other tasks. I probably do my best thinking while doing dishes!

Taymalin said...

Thanks Gary!

I do outline, but I write an about first. Usually it's a lot longer than what I posted here. I cut it down by 50 words before posting.

My outlining process is weird. I write the outline, and before I write each scene I do another, longer outline for it.

I've only outlined the first quarter of this book, and written four scenes. I'll outline the rest of the novel when I figure out how it ends.

Taymalin said...

If you're curious, I thought I'd post what I originally had for my about here. This is the first thing I write for any story:

When the ghost of a murdered woman shows up at Joey’s magic shop and accuses her brother of murder, she sets out to prove her brother’s innocence. Unfortunately, the dead don’t lie, and what little evidence exists points to him as the killer.

Joey struggles to hold her family together as she confronts the truth. Her brother has been using magic to kill. As a child, Joey didn’t have the strength to stop him, and even as an adult she’s not sure she can put her duty to protect the innocent above the loyalty and love she has for her family. But one thing is certain, if she fails to do just that, her brother will kill again.

Gary Corby said...

Welshcake, for my money, the only premise which definitely won't work is a boring one. Yours isn't boring.

I know what you mean about deja vu on revisions. I reached the point with my first where, every time I opened a scene to revise, my eyes saw the previous eight versions simultaneously. It would actually help to have a bad memory.

Gary Corby said...


Starting with the theme is unusual, I suppose, but whatever works. People will probably still be arguing about outline vs seat of the pants a thousand years from now.

If you need more thinking time, by the way, I can offer you our dishes too. (I'm so generous!)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taymalin,

I know it's longer, but I think I prefer your second. It doesn't feel as rushed and it seems to carry more personality. For me anyway.

And I still think it's an interesting story.

Susanna Fraser said...

I don't do a detailed outline, but I've found that if I don't plan at all, it takes me multiple drafts just to figure out the plot and I get frustrated. So I have a one-page list of character arcs and key plot points to use as signposts to write toward.

Gary Corby said...

That's a good idea, Susan. Just enough to keep each character flying in the right direction, but you don't know where they'll land?

What do you do if it looks like you'll miss a key signpost? Backtrack or rework?

Nighfala said...

I read that Francine Rivers, a well-known Christian novelist, creates an outline and then puts it in a drawer. Then she pulls it out only if she gets stuck with the story.

Susanna Fraser said...

What do you do if it looks like you'll miss a key signpost? Backtrack or rework?

Either or both--I try to figure out if I've got the wrong signpost or am just taking the wrong route to get there.

I've finished four manuscripts, but in many ways I'm still learning my own process through trial and error. The two manuscripts where I used a light "signpost" outline flowed more smoothly than the two where I just sailed in and wrote as inspiration struck, so that's now my process.

I've also learned to let stories simmer on my mental back burner for a bit before I start writing. The new manuscript has been building up in my mind for nearly a year, longer if you count the many years I've been interested in 18th/early 19th century India and wanting to use it as a setting. In researching my last manuscript, which is set in England in 1805 but has a protagonist who'd just returned from India, I came across an incident that caught my interest but didn't really lead to anything novel-worthy in real life, so I thought, "Maybe an alternative history or a fantasy." I kept playing with it when I had idle moments, and pretty soon I had a character, an inciting incident, and a vague sense of where the story might go from there.

Then, as I was finishing my previous manuscript and thinking about what to write next, the pieces started to fall into place for the setting and plot for that new idea more than the half dozen or so others that are simmering somewhere in my brain, so I sat down and, using a Hero's Journey structure, did my one page outline.

If I don't give a story that simmering time before I write, I end up with what happened with the previous manuscript. I spent nearly a year and 80,000 words that felt like pushing through molasses only to realize that I had the right protagonist and the right inciting incident, but everything about the plot and secondary characters was all wrong. It was deeply frustrating and I hope to avoid anything like that in the future.

Susanna Fraser said...

Sorry for such a long comment! Get me talking about my writing process and I'll jabber on and on and on...

Gary Corby said...

I hadn't heard before about the outline in the drawer, Christine. That's actually quite funny! I'm sure it works but I wouldn't have the discipline not to pull it out every other day.

Gary Corby said...

Wow Susan, you're seriously well organised compared to me. I tried an outline with my second book, and eventually in self-defence had to tear it up and go back to making things up as I went. The fact you use hero's journey as you did shows too that you've studied your craft.

I know exactly what you mean about needing to keep a story simmering on the backburner before it can be properly cooked. I'm pretty sure every writer does the same.

Don't worry about comment length, not on this blog anyway. You should see how much got written in the post about whether America is more like Athens or Rome. Everyone had lots to say, and every bit of it was way cool.

_*rachel*_ said...

When I don't let it simmer a bit, the results can be disappointing. Some of my best (short) stories are the ones I wrote, let age for a year or two, and rewrote from scratch.

At least, I think they're better. My awareness of publishing--and the (ever slight) chance of me getting published--only came about a year or so ago. I haven't submitted many pre-awareness stories, and am still editing the rewrites. They feel better, anyway.

Susanna Fraser said...

See, I don't feel organized at all, since I know writers who swear by 10-50 page outlines. Though, to me, if you're going to do a 50-page outline, you might as well just write the book.

I'm just impressed that you write mysteries without pre-planning! It's the only genre I regularly read that I've never attempted to write, because I feel like I'd need to be so much more organized to work in the clues and so on.

Gary Corby said...

Strangely enough, since I need to make lots of characters equally suspect, it actually helps if I don't know which of them did it until the end.

_*rachel*_ said...

When I don't let it simmer a bit, the results can be disappointing. Some of my best (short) stories are the ones I wrote, let age for a year or two, and rewrote from scratch.

At least, I think they're better.

That's actually kind of funny, Gary; I'd almost imagine you need to know and plan ahead of time so you can be judicious with your clues. Like Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief--you don't figure "it" out until the end, but it's not all that surprising because all the puzzle pieces are already there.

Sorry--I couldn't resist plugging her book. It was relevant to the topic, it's Greece-inspired, and I'm geeking out about the 4th book in the series, which I just bought today.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Rachel, plug away all you like. You probably noticed my previous post was one huge plug for Mary Renault.

I find some of my best clues come out of thin air as I type. Just two days ago an entirely unexpected twist appeared as I wrote the third in the series. It's a twist that would never have entered my head if I'd outlined. (And I wish I could tell it to you, but that of course would be a spoiler...but it's cool. I tend to get excited about cool twists.)

So as long as I keep track of who's implicated by how much, I can let the characters go where they will. It might help that I used to play competitive chess, which means I've had lots of practise at carrying logic trails in my head.

Taymalin said...

Gary--I read an interview with Tami Hoag where she said something similar. That it was better if she didn't know who the killer was while she was writing the first draft, and she's often surprised when she finds out whodunnit.

It is really interesting to see how different people write. Personally, I like to at least know how my story ends.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taymalin,

Whatever works for someone, it's all good.

In the second in the series I knew the ending straight away. In fact I knew it so well I wrote the climax scene first. I discovered it made my plotting much more linear, since I knew where I was going!