Writers have entire worlds swimming around in our heads, and we often have a hard time condensing something so huge into less than 100,000 words. This is why one of the hardest parts of trying to get published is often said to be writing a query letter or a synopsis. Often, we see the grand scale, twisting plot, and intense worldbuilding as a major part of the charm of our stories, but these lose a lot of their effect when they’re presented in conversation.
Some writers respond to this by staying quiet and not talking about their stories at all. Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum and try to tell the entire thing in one sitting.
Now, don’t get me wrong– telling people about your story can be a great way to get other people excited to read it. However, presenting too much all at once can be overwhelming and off-putting.
Based on my experiences interacting with other writers, here are some common problems we have when talking about our stories, and tips on how to fix them.
You’ve tried hinting in the most pointed-yet-polite ways possible that you really need to get going, but to no avail. After two hours of listening to the adventures of the protagonist, the writer shows no sign of stopping. You lost the thread of their story a long time ago, but you don’t dare ask for clarification for fear that you’ll encourage them to keep talking.
Solution: The Elevator Pitch
An elevator pitch is an extremely short introduction to your story– so short, in fact, that you can get it out in the space of an elevator ride. Some people say you should condense your story into one sentence, some say two, some say three. I say if you have to stop to take a breath, it’s probably too long. Elevator pitches give an enticing little glimpse of your story without overwhelming your listener.
Solution: Tit for Tat
If a person’s asked you about your projects, ask them about theirs– and actually ask questions about the parts that you find interesting. After all, you’re having a conversation, not an interview on Oprah.
Problem: Identity Crisis
So Frodo’s a hobbit. But he’s also an orphan. But he’s also the nephew of Bilbo Baggins, who was this awesome adventurer hobbit who stole treasure from a dragon and ended a feud between the elves and dwarves. But he’s also the Ring Bearer. But he’s also got this scar that he got when he was stabbed by the Witch King of Angmar, and it nearly killed him, but he was saved by elvish magic. Oh, and he’s also an elf friend. And he’s also got this sword called Sting that glows when there are orcs nearby. And he’s… (etc).
Solution: Pick one
A surplus of detail can make everything blur into incoherence– and without context, make the character (or the world) seem over-the-top and absurd. Instead, pick a single memorable detail and focus on that.
As writers, we’re aware of the entire story from beginning to end, whether it spans a single hour or a thousand years. Meanwhile, the listener hears every event you describe as though they’re happening in rapid succession and with equal emphasis. Pick a single moment– are you describing Luke the Last Jedi Master, or are you describing Luke the Orphaned Farmboy?– and try to keep your explanations focused to those. If you need to describe something that happens outside of that moment, say so: “he eventually becomes a full Jedi Master, but that’s another story entirely.”