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 TerryPratchett.com:
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.