Commaful Series: Writing a Killer Synopsis and Forming Your Outline (Writing #2)

Hello everyone! Good weekend! Today I’m going to talk about composing your outline–which can easily be turned into a synopsis. This is difficult for most writers as they’ve spent hours and hours creatively writing their magnum opus and now they are being asked to condense the entire twisty-turny plot into a short description and don’t know what to do.

This is a novel idea for some of you, but it is actually easiest to write the synopsis first, and put in all your great ideas, then write the book that fulfills all those promises. It sounds crazy, but it does work. I did it myself with the WIP, The Clockwork Pen. I came up with the hook first: A boy who opens a door to find another world.

When I am going to write a book, I have a process that falls somewhere between the “planners” and the “pantsers” (those who fly by the seat of their pants). I begin with my concept or my hook, and if I can write a blurb, I do that next.

Here’s what I wrote:

A high school senior on the football team. A badass rebel leader with a gunbelt and skirt. One simple decision could bring them together or force them apart.

Nothing has ever mattered to Wyll, he’s no hero. But when he finds a dark, hidden world of clockwork made with a magic pen by a mad king, he realizes that just being from his world makes his presence a crime.

When the mad king visits him in a dungeon cell and implants a tracker in his arm, he realizes the Resistance makes a lot of sense. If they can find a way to steal the king’s magic pen, they’ll form a new government and Wyll can go home. Ready to fight back, he has a cause to get behind—for the first time.

An attraction grows between Wyll and Sira, but anxiety threatens to cripple him. If he keeps it a secret that the king is using him to betray her, they’ll both be captured, but if he tells her the truth, he’ll lose everything.

The Clockwork Pen is a dark YA Steampunk novel. If you like to be drawn into dark and dangerous worlds of mystery, with brave characters and four-alarm chemistry, then you’ll love this wicked action meets fantasy series.

After that, I want to know the order of scenes I need to write. I call this my “Sceneology.” Get a new word document or a notebook and start planning out your story. Give a line to each scene as you think of it. The scene descriptors can be as vague as, “Wyll leaves the house and finds the door.” And they can be as detailed as you want, i.e. “Wyll’s parents tell him they’re getting a divorce and he leaves the house looking for a distraction from his roiling emotions. He and his friend walk to the mansion and decide to explore. When they hear a man being killed, they panic and flee to the basement where Wyll finds a door that opens into a new world.”

You can use a bit of dialogue, or whatever will remind you of the scene you want to write. While I am deciding what scenes I want in the book, I use a story structure to know what scene comes next.

Here is the structure I use:

1| The Norm: what’s your character’s normal routine look like? What do they need/want?

2| Inciting Incident: that event that turns your character’s life upside down and starts the action of something new and/or unexpected.

3| First Point: at this point in the plot, something will happen to draw the character into the story and they hit a “point of no return” where they are invested in the struggle, or the mission, or solving the mystery, or righting the wrong.

4| Second Point: this is where the bad guy shows up and they have their first battle, or argument, or encounter. The good guy loses here. Things start to feel bad.

5| Midpoint: up the stakes here. The stakes are what could happen if the protagonist does NOT win. What will happen? The hero dies? The world dies? The heroine never falls in love? If there’s a love story, it starts to have feelings here, deep ones. The character shifts from wimp to warrior. They take up their weapon and say, maybe for the first time, “Okay. Let’s beat this thing!” They have accepted their role in the story. It’s fine to have them fight it up to this point.

6| Fourth Point: here we have our second encounter with the evil we are fighting, or the adversity we are facing. And we lose. Again. The kicker is, this time it’s definitely the main character’s fault that we fail. They think, “Can I really do this?” If there’s a romance, maybe the MC shares their feelings but they aren’t returned. Things don’t look good.

7| Fifth Point: this is called “the dark night of the soul” and is basically that. Everything is going wrong, their life is a lie, they retreat, maybe there’s corruption among the good guys, whatever you can do to rain on the character’s parade, do it.

8| React and Plan: here we are going to gather items we need (guns/money/cars/plane tickets) and hunt for allies to make a team or plan a mission. We aren’t quite sure what to do, but after a talk with a mentor, or a secret letter found, or some memory or dream, their hope is renewed. And they get a great idea. Use this time to follow up on any plot holes you have. Now they think, “I MUST do this, I’m the only one who can fix things!” And they set a trap, maybe.

9| Final Battle: this is where the hero has nothing left to lose. They’ve given up on winning, but need to at least stop the bad thing from happening. They are finally willing to sacrifice everything to win. Something happens here in which the character has a vision, a thought, a rush of power, but through the scenes they either remember a detail, or the truth is revealed, or a crucial missing piece is found, so the character taps into that power and uses the truth to defeat the antagonist.

10|Resolution: After the climax of your story, even if you plan to end with a cliffhanger, you need a resolution to end the story. Maybe, if you’re picking up Book 2 right where this leaves off, give us some closing thoughts from the MC’s perspective on what’s happened, and what still needs to happen. Tell us how that affects them and what they plan to do about it. Then, you can always begin Book 2 with that same bit of reminder and goal planning. But in general, show us what their “new normal” looks like. And tell us how they feel about it.

So, using the story structure, I decide what I want to happen in each of those scenes in my story. I usually do this on paper, because after that, I take a ring of index cards and write each scene descriptor on a card. If I have ideas for more, I make extra cards. Some are simple sentences and some cards are stuffed with dialogue, and covered with extra post-it notes.

You can reorder the cards any way you wish, add or subtract cards, until you have the story you want to tell. I flip to the first card, read what it says, and write that scene. When I’m done, I flip to the next card, and write that scene. And I just keep going until I’m done. Flip and write. This releases you to be MORE creative because you aren’t trying to craft a good story AS you write a good story. You can focus on the details and the nuances because you already know where your story is going. You know that you only need to get them from point A to point B with as much excitement and adventure as possible. You can focus on foreshadowing because you know how you want the story to end. You can throw the reader off the trail, because you know the ending.

Even if you are a “pantser” you will still have to build a story. Whether you do it while you write, before, or (I hope not) after, the work will have to be done. So, save yourself some pain and formulate the outline first, then “pants” your way through the writing. It’s still very creative, though you know the direction you’re going. Pantsers equate “planning” as squashing their creativity and free flow of ideas. I’m just saying “free flow” first. It’s like thinking the scenic drive won’t be beautiful because you’re following a map and know where you’re going. On the contrary, if you don’t have to decide where you’re going, you are free to enjoy the scenery where you are.

But you said “Killer Synopsis.” Yes, I did. If you wrote out all those scenes in a Word document, you’re a step ahead. If not, go type those up. A synopsis is simply an edited list of your scenes. that’s exactly what the agent wants to know. Make sure to include the ending. Add a few sentences in there to make the piece flow in sentence form, and you’ve got the bones of your synopsis.

It is much harder to do this the other way and write the story first. Trying to make something you’ve already written sound exciting, or quantify it if you didn’t plan scenes, is hard. It’s difficult to know what details to include and what to leave out. I think the first synopsis I wrote was like ten pages long–they should be about two. I had no idea how to condense all that information.

A tip: If you are working this way, and a lot of you will be, my suggestion–since you are likely most familiar with your work–is to put the manuscript down. Don’t look at it, and try to do a sceneology of your book from memory. What happens in the first scene? What’s the main point of the scene? Use the story structure I have above and ask yourself, “What’s the inciting incident?” Write that down. “What’s the first encounter they have with the bad guy?” Write that down. Etc. etc.

When you have a list of your scenes, put them into sentence form and you’ve got a synopsis. Now, use descriptive words and tighten it up. Make it concise and informative. Agents aren’t going to judge your writing skill on your synopsis, but if your book is a horror, feel free to make it creepy. Make us laugh for a comedy. If it’s whimsical, use words of whimsy. Get it? It’s not required, but hey, you wanted to know how to write a killer synopsis. And that’s how to do it.

Just remember, you aren’t married to your sceneology. If you plan out a great story and get to the fourth point and get an idea for an even better ending, go for it. Write new cards and shove them in your deck, and write from them instead. Happens to me all the time. But I wouldn’t be as free to see my options if I didn’t already know what they were. The plan is not a prison sentence, it’s the bolt-cutter that will set you free to write the way you want.

Until next weekend, Keep Writing!

~jenn

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