“A successful focus sentence is the most basic, bare-bones version of your narrative arc.”
Out on the Wire, Episode 4
A focus sentence is what screenwriters call a logline. The essential elements of your story. In the podcast Out on the Wire, Jessica Abel explains how some narrative & non-fiction radio/podcast producers use the technique “that allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.”
And she points out that the focus sentence idea came to her from The Transom Story Workshop teacher Rob Rosenthal, who found the concept in the book From Idea to Air: Getting Paid for Your Writing on Public Radio by Tod Maffin.
Jessica explains the focus sentence:
It goes like this:
Let’s go over that again.
A main character. A protagonist.
The protagonist is in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.
The protagonist has a motivation–inner, or outer–for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.
There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.
So here’s an example:
Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside.
Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi.”
But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.
Now on the the CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, Alex Blumberg reveals what he calls The Story Formula (another version of a focus sentence:
The formula is:
I’m doing a story about X
And it’s interesting because of Y
It’s hard for for me, it’s hard work for everybody, to try to figure out what is the most compelling way of framing the thing I’m trying to discuss. What is the thing that takes it out of being sort of a stock, tacky way of thinking about something, and turns it around into something that’s fresh and exciting? It’s hard. And it takes a lot of time. And it takes a lot of practice. But I’m living proof that you can cross the chasm.”
CEO & co-founder of Gimlet Media and producer/host of the podcast StartUp
And just to throw in a third version of a focus sentence Jessica found one more producer, who came up with a more dynamic demand on the story you are trying to tell.
I want to have some reason for that story to exist. I want to be like, It needs to say something back to the entire universe, or say something back to me in my life in some kind of way.
Yeah, so maybe my sentence would be,
This happened ____, then this _____, then this____, and then you wouldn’t [BEEP] believe it but _______ . And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking on the face of the earth is _________.
Senior Producer of Radiolab
So there have three different options to test your story ideas. Find what works for you.
P.S. And I guess this would be a good time to toss in one of the 22 #storybasics I’ve picked up in my time at Pixar by Emma Coats:
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
From the post A Really Simple Writing Rule (via Trey Parker) the South Park gang does this:
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So you come up with an idea and write ‘and this happens…and then this happens…’ no, no, no. It should be ‘this happens and therefore, this happens’. ‘But, this happens, therefore, this happens….’”
The Perfect Logline
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2)
‘The Inside Pitch’ “A logline is a super tiny pitch. A TV guide presentation of your story. Two or three sentences….It’s important to know what the thoughline of your story is…if I don’t hear a throughline, I don’t think you have a dramatic story.”—Christopher Lockhart