How to Write a Synopsis and Rewrite a Plot

A friend of mine is in the same situation I am–stuck on a book–and she said what she really needed was an outline. So I revamped my old synopsis-writing outline, and now I’m thinking maybe I should try that on Nita again–believe me, I’ve outlined Nita’s discovery draft several times already–and maybe apply it to Anna, Nadine, and Alice. And since I’ve been neglecting Argh … do you want to write an outline? (I saw Frozen last night for the first time and the earworms are constant.)

Please remember, YOU ANALYZE AFTER THE DISCOVERY DRAFT, NOT BEFORE. Thank you.

OUTLINING FOR PLOT
Please note, I do this after the Discovery Draft is done or at least almost done.

PART ONE:
1. Who’s your protagonist?
2. What is her/his/their goal? (Must be specific and concrete, external, not internal.)
3. Who’s your antagonist?
4. What is her/his/ their goal? (Must be specific and concrete, external, not internal.)

PART TWO:

First Turning Point: CONFLICT STARTS, STABLE WORLD DESTROYED. What happens to the protagonist that destroys/interrupts the protagonist’s stable world and spurs her/him/them into action? (Doesn’t have to be a good stability, just something that the protagonist was coping with, and then THIS happens and propels her/him/them into the conflict/story.)

First Act (Leave this blank for now.)

Second Turning Point: STAKES RISE, CONFLICT GETS WORSE. An event/action that changes everything for the protagonist, points the story in a new direction. Also arcs character for protagonist, increases motivation for protagonist and antagonist.

Second Act (Leave this blank for now.)

Mid Turning Point: POINT OF NO RETURN. An event/action that changes everything for the protagonist again, this time radically, and points the story in a new direction. Arcs character for protagonist to the point where even if she/he/they tried to go back to where they were at the beginning, they couldn’t, they’ve changed too much, increases motivation for protagonist and antagonist.

Third Act: (Leave blank for now.)

Crisis Turning Point: EVERYTHING IS LOST. An event/action that is so devastating to the protagonist it should be a defeat, except that the protagonist cannot quit. Points the story in a new direction and arcs character for protagonist (trial by fire), increases motivation for protagonist and antagonist.

Fourth Act (Leave this blank for now.)

Climax Turning Point: FINAL BATTLE, aka Obligatory Scene. Protagonist and antagonist meet to settle conflict once and for all.

Denouement: NEW STABLE WORLD, Not the same stable world as in the beginning. Not an epilogue and no babies; just a short sigh space at the end to reassure the reader that everything is settled for the protagonist and answered.

PART THREE:
Now go back and write a one paragraph summary for the acts, which are the big blocks of content between the turning points. Each act description should begin “The protagonist does this,” probably in reaction to the turning point. Acts should almost be stories on their own since the turning points change the story, turning it in a new direction. Sometimes helpful: Title each act.

PART FOUR:
Now go back and read the outline from the beginning, smoothing it out into a two-page synopsis (or not, if you don’t need a synopsis). There’s your story map. Feel free to change it.

Divide your manuscript into four documents, ending in turning points (except for the first one which begins and ends with turning points and the last one which ends with the denouement), labeling them [Title] Act One, etc. (Example Nita Act One, Nita Act Two, Nita Act Three, Nita Act Four.).

For escalation purposes, each act doc should get shorter ao that the turning points come closer together and your pacing speeds up. Also, each turning point should be more dire, increasing the pressure on the protagonist and antagonist, raising the stakes. (I use roughly 33K/28K/24K/15K, but those are really rough numbers.)

Key thing to remember: The protagonist is always the subject of the first sentence in each of the ten parts of the synopsis.

19 thoughts on “How to Write a Synopsis and Rewrite a Plot

  1. Just wow. I don’t know how well this works for memoir, which is what I’m struggling with,
    but I may find out! Thank you.

    1. Memoir generally doesn’t escalate. It’s more anecdotal and patterned structure.
      One way to look at memoir might be Gail Sheehy’s Passages, which I haven’t read in decades, but as I recall, it breaks life into sections/passages, in a kind of outline.

  2. You certainly give the lie to never watching how politics or sausage are made. I (we) love watching you make your sausage. 😉

  3. I’m weird and do something like this as part of outlining, so the outline is my discovery draft (and then I discover more as I write). But what I really want to emphasize here is this, which I think a lot of writers get wrong in synopsis-writing (and even more in query writing, where the same thing applies except to fewer parts).

    “The protagonist is always the subject of the first sentence in each of the ten parts of the synopsis.”

    So much this. I do more query critiques than synopsis critiques, but I see it time and again in queries, where there are far too many instances of either starting with worldbuilding/backstory instead of the protagonist, or starting with the protagonist for one sentence and then immediately switching the focus to the antagonist (you need a sentence/phrase for the antag’s role in the inciting event, but I’m talking about beyond that) or worldbuilding, and sometimes the query never returns to the protag at all, or by the time the query does get back to the protag, I’ve forgotten who it is.

  4. I love this kind of technical how-you-do-it but I struggle to apply it to my own stuff. Maybe in part because I generally don’t view my main characters as protagonist-antagonist? I mean, I don’t see one MC being motivated by something the other MC opposes or would view as a deal-breaker. Or maybe it’s that I don’t see one single character as the driving force ‘central’ character. The story only exists because MC1 and MC2 are working toward being a unit.

    I typically envision relationships in which the main characters are allies. This may be simply a case of tripping over the terminology (‘antagonist’ in my head means ‘enemy,’ or at best ‘adversary,’ which I think is not how you use it). But almost all my MCs face external, rather than internal, obstacles. E.g career change, a health crisis, etc. It’s not ‘I can’t trust this person’ or ‘zir agenda seems suspect’ or ‘ze is not good for me.’ Even the book with a police procedural plotline was not about MC2 getting in the way of MC1 somehow.

    The relationship conflict arises from differing approaches to or beliefs about the external obstacles in the course of mutually dealing with the obstacles. No idea how I would frame that in this kind of structure. Have a feeling I would get halfway through the process and then decide the draft was complete garbage and I should never write again. Fascinating though!

    1. This is for traditional linear structure, which obviously is not yours (go, you!).
      If your stories are about two people working out a relationship, then that’s your protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the one who owns the story. The antagonist is the one who shapes the story. The conflict is inherent in “working out.” If they have something to work out, they have conflict. They don’t have to want to kill each other, they just have to disagree. (See Moonstruck.)

      Alternative romance novel approach: Main Protagonist vs Antagonist who is not the love interest. Subplot Protagonist (who is the love interest) vs Same Antagonist. Main and Subplot protagonists join forces to defeat Antagonist, fall in love, yadda yadda.

      There are a million ways to plot in the naked city of fiction writing. It’s just that the most common is the traditional linear cause and effect protagonist vs antagonist structure.

      See also patterned structure, frame structure, picaro stories . . . so many different kinds.

        1. Charade is the classic example of that one.

          How To Steal a Million is another one, although the antagonist is sidelined there.

      1. “Alternative romance novel approach”. Oh, yes! This is what I’ve been looking for! Thank you! This will work!
        (I know – too many exclamations, but I’m very excited.)

  5. Since we’re doing writing mechanics and such, I recall reading (I think it was on Argh) about a literary term for a “naive” character who mostly exists to ask questions on the reader’s mind without it coming across as info dump (although I’m sure if there’s a way, I’ll find it). Does that ring a bell?

  6. On a completely unrelated note, did you see they are revamping Leverage with Noah Wylie playing the new “leader” and different character in lieu of Timothy Hutton? The ensemble cast returns.

        1. I think I’m resisting because Nate’s not there, which is dumb. I hear he’s dead. Along with Hutton’s career, I presume.
          But yes, I must try it.

          You know what I’d like? A new Person of Interest. We’ve still got Shaw and Bear and Fusco and Finch, plus Root in the Machine. Sigh.

        2. I got the first two episodes late last night and really enjoyed them both. I missed the last season or two of the original series—Real Life got in the way—So I’m not clear how it ended. But the new ones look like fun.

  7. I do some of this as part of my discovery work. And I write an outline before I write the book, but I always keep in mind the turning points as I’m doing it. The workshop I took from you years ago about that at RWA literally changed my writing. (And my writing career.)

  8. I always seem to get stuck in the weeds on discovery draft. Maybe someday I’ll finish something, but until then it’s fun to play with and I have a day job I enjoy.

    It’s always fascinating to read about your process. I’m hoping we’ll get to read the reworked first scene in due time.

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