Story in Four

One of the worst things about being a professional writer is that you have to write synopses so that people know what your book is about before they act on it. I can sell without synopses now, but I still have to write them for catalog copy so booksellers know what they’re getting. My method is to write nine lines: the first scene, what happens in Act One, the first turning point, what happens in Act Two, the second turning point, what happens in Act Three, the third turning point, what happens in Act Four, and the climax. Those nine points, I will argue, are the outline of the story, are, in fact, the story.

But that’s techie stuff, the structure, the bones in the story. The things that truly sell the book or movie and bring readers and viewers back to read and see again are most often not those turning points, they’re usually the moments where the reader or viewer connects most strongly emotionally, gets the most pleasure or the biggest thrill. For example, the scene most often cited in Fast Women is the diner scene; it has nothing to do with structure, everything to do with showing how much Nell and Gabe and especially Suze have changed, how much stronger and smarter they are, how much more they’re worth rooting for. So while I’ll tell you that the turning points are the most efficient and effective way of describing a story, readers or viewers are likely to tell you The Really Good Parts.

I thought of all of this because of a new blog that I read, thanks once again to The Dish. It’s Movies in Frames, a site where people can send in their synopses of movies, done in four pictures. I’d never seen most of the movies on there so I was hampered as far as plot analysis, but I was struck by how beautiful some of the four-picture strips were and by how far some of them missed capturing the movie even though they’d obviously put thought into their choices.

Take this character list from one of my favorite movies, Dogma:


which l like because it reminds me of the great cast of both actors and characters –the Buddy Jesus standing in for George Carlin–but it doesn’t give me the sense of the movie itself, the insane sanity of its well-structured plot and bizarro world design. Plus it’s not linked visually in anyway beyond the “they’re all characters” aspect; that is, they’re not all staring into your eyes or interacting with each other, they’re just . . . there.

Then this one for Heat is visually beautiful and well-designed . . .


. . . but wasn’t Heat a cop movie? (I didn’t see it, that’s a real question, not a rhetorical one). Clearly for this viewer it was a romance, though, which brings us to what these strips are about, not the movie that the writer and director designed, but the movie that the viewer saw.

Which made me wonder what it would be like to pick out the four most indelible moments in a book I loved, to say, “These are the things I remember. Say The Grand Sophy. Off the top of my head, I loved Sophy shooting the card in the dining room, Sophy saving the family after the monkey debacle, Sophy facing down the moneylender, and Sophy and Charles at the Marquesa’s house as all Sophy’s plans come undone and she steams on ahead anyway. Clearly for me, The Grand Sophy is about Sophy not taking any crap from anybody, be it the man she loves, the woman he’s engaged to, a criminal she’s tracked down, or good old Fate. That may not be what Heyer intended since she was writing a great romance novel, not women’s fiction. Of course three of those four scenes have Charles in them, so I may not be that far off the mark.

Or there’s Going Postal, a Terry Pratchett novel, one of the best he’s ever written. It’s wonderful because of the major players: Moist Von Lipwig, Lord Vetinari, Adorabelle Dearhart, and Reacher Gilt, so there’s your strip of four indelible characters, all of whom would stare back at you defiantly from a photo. But I also like the list that’s on the Going Postal page at

But if the bold and undoable are what’s called for, Moist’s the man for the job — to move the mail, continue breathing, get the girl, and specially deliver that invaluable commodity that every being, human or otherwise, requires: hope.

So there you have a nice strip of Moist’s accomplishments in the book: bring the moribund post office back to life, avoid being murdered by the dead letters and Reacher Gilt, win the stony heart of the chain-smoking Adorabelle, and return justice to the world by bringing down the too-powerful-to-be-defeated Reacher. Pretty good for a long-time small-time crook who has to introduce himself by saying, “I’m Moist.” (Miraculously, that joke never gets old.) I like that strip even better because it puts Moist in the frame for all four and yet captures the never-say-die spirit of the book, even if it takes a golem to keep Moist from running away through most of the first act.

I think Movies in Frames is a great exercise for writers and for readers looking to understand their visceral reactions to the stories they’re engaged with. We don’t have actual photos, that stuff is in our heads, but we can visualize the moments that grab us and then see how they relate to each other visually (see Heat above) to find the core of the story, at least the story we read or saw. That may be another way to intuitively structure stories at the macro level. Or to do very short synopses.

Story in Four. Try it.

26 thoughts on “Story in Four

  1. This post is really great — and I realized it helped me understand why I have had a hard time pulling out the turning points in novels after I learned about them. I do tend to remember the emotionals first.


  2. What an interesting article. I tried to write a synopsis this week and it seemed flat, I’ll try this. But first off I’m experimenting with four picture frames from a movie I saw yesterday. It was The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. I loved the movie on so many levels and it touched me in a way a movie hasn’t in a long time. I stopped writing just now to think of those favorite frames and you are so right, none of mine were major turning points they were where the characters triggered emotion in me, where the tears started to well up, where the subtle changes in the two mens relationship took place without them even understanding a friendship was building.


  3. Doesn’t Charles shoot the card? Or does he do it and then Sophy… clearly I need to read the book again.

    I like the one for Brick. Has anyone else seen Brick? BRILLIANT movie.

    The one for Pleasantville kind of missed the mark…


  4. “Dogma” is on my list of must-see movies, so I’m glad to read of your high opinion of it. “Going Postal” is one of my favorite Pratchett novels, although I think I’d have to extend that list to five “most favorites,” because he’s written a number of wonderful books.

    As an exercise in narration, I tried rewriting a section of my book in the Pratchett style and realized just how much needless information he boils away. Descriptions are minimal and what’s left are precisely phrased, and the result is he needs a lot of story to move things along. He doesn’t pad a chapter with a lot of description.

    And some of his observations stick with me. In one of the books, Samuel Vimes (guardsman who grew up in poverty, now married to the wealthiest woman in Ankh-Morpork), reflects on the price of boots, and how poor people pay a little for boots that wear out in a season, and hence pay more for aristocrats, who spend a lot up front but who end up passing their footwear down to their grandchildren.


  5. Moth – I thought you were wrong at first, but now that I think about it, it IS Charles. But it was Sophie’s gun.


  6. I’ve still only read the shooting script for Dogma, have never seen the movie. I’ll have to see if I can dig it up on Hulu or some such. Absolutely loved the story – beautifully written. Thank you for the Movies in Frames link – I’m doing a ScriptFrenzy redux in June by way of first-drafting a novel, and this is a great visual cue set for the one-page.


  7. : it is, indeed, Charles who fires Sophy’s gun – though we must remember that she herself fires it later to wound Charlbury, in her complex plans to pair people off in the tidy fashion.
    Charles is at first unwilling to believe that Sophy confronted Goldhanger, and is also unwilling to believe that she carries a pistol, and knows how to use it. She brings it down to show him, and comments, ‘I warn you, it throws a trifle left’.
    After he shoots the invitation card, held at arm’s length by Sophy:
    ‘I told you that it threw left’, Sophy reminded him, critically surveying his handiwork. ‘Shall we reload it so that I can show you what I can do?’


  8. My favorite Heyer is probably The Talisman Ring. It was the first one I read and I still laugh out loud through large portions of it. I love the part with Ludovic and the perfume bottle especially.

    And the whole portion where Miss Thane and Eustacie discuss how they’ve told the Beau Tristram is a fortune hunter. And he says, “I trust neither of you will hesitate to vilify my character whenever it seems expedient to you to do so.” Heyer is just so, so good.


  9. Damn, I should know better than to stop by here just for fun — it always ends up with me having to work. I’ve only written a two-page synopsis for my story because a) that’s all that’s been requested at this point and b) I really hate writing synopses, because, despite a gazillion classes, they still read like book reports. Jenny’s idea for the four-frame visual grabbed me, and I’m wishing I was an artist enough to draw those scenes.

    Now I’m going to have to go back and work on the darn synopsis after all.


  10. I love Dogma. Kevin Smith is a genius. Then there’s the fact that is was mostly filmed in the area where I lived for many years. I nudged my friend in the theater and said, “Hey, I’ve played Skee Ball in the same arcade as God.”


  11. Georgette Heyer has hilarious dialogue and characters – not slapstick, just exquisitely chosen language and details. I can’t remember (off the top of my head) which I read first, but Grand Sophy was the first I owned. Things that have been read over and over and over, sometimes it’s hard to remember a time before…

    I have the same problem with Crusies.


  12. The Convenient Marriage is the first Heyer I read but Sophy was the 2nd.

    The only thing I would change is that I would swipe out the monkey scene for the scene where Charles sees her nursing his sister. Heyer does it so well and without relevant dialogue and yet, it’s one of the major turning points of the book.

    I will have to check out the 4 frame site.


  13. Going Postal is my favorite Pratchett also, but I’m not sure it can be reduced to 4 images. Or any images, really. The beauty of Pratchett is the throw-away lines. (Have you read Making Money? Some of the statements are eery in light of current financial developments)

    I tried doing this 4 frame thing to Faking It (my favorite Crusie), and couldn’t do it, either. 7, maybe, but 4 just isn’t big enough.


  14. This reminds me of something Jack Nicholson once said that I try to keep in mind when plotting stories. Essentially, here’s what convinces him to accept a role in a script: three or four scenes that seem like so much fun, he can’t wait to shoot them.


  15. That’s a fun way to slice and dice a story. Four pivotal scenes is probably better than, say, five sentences from page 100.

    I have a feeling I would pick out moments with interesting items in the background. I rarely pick up a book based on “the outline of the story” and it’s not a sure thing that I’ll respond to the same “Really Good [emotional] Parts” as other readers, but I often pick up books, and remember them, in terms of their themes.


  16. Thank you for pointing this website out. I loved working my way through it and seeing movies a different way. For example, a new one of Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark was put up with just pictures of … oh the bad dude with the funny glasses? … see? Now I see the movie in a different way. It’s a good exercise for writers I think to point out their favorite scenes in their books.

    P.S. Jenny – I was at Target today and there was a framed picture there that said “Always Kiss Me Goodnight” … It was black and brown and a little scary despite the message. 16.99 and you can find it online at their store too.


  17. Four frames of WTT: Sophie and Amy driving in to town and seein the WTT sign, Tucker for mayor sign; the women sitting on the porch by candlelight telling stories (secretly filmed by Amy); Dillie in the back seat singing Dusty Springfield; and then, I think the pool table seduction, but maybe the dock seduction scene.


  18. Wow! I’m dashing off to the mess of a synopsis I’ve been pulling out my hair over and may actually accomplish something worthwhile now. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚


  19. I just read through this and now it makes me want to go and do it with my favorite Novels. I just reread your novel, Crazy for You, yesterday, and I am trying to pick my four favorite moments and then weave them together.

    I am going to have to do this with all the books I read. I think it will definitely help my writing.


  20. Bet Me by Jenny Crusie

    Ovaries sitting up. Krispy Kreme Donuts. Fairy Godmothers. Being brave enough to say your dreams out loud.

    Makes me want to read the book again.

    One of my own: HMYWTB? *God, why did I have to choose a long title? I’m so not writing it out now.*

    Whipped cream is for wimps. Charming Nuns out of their habbits. (sp?) Longing to paint. Loving someone being the ultimate gamble.

    Oh. I like this game.


  21. I loved the moviesinframes site so much I went and made my own for Star Wars: A New Hope. It got posted today. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Now, I want to make more.


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