Saturday, 15 January 2022

Six synopses that came to my rescue when plotting: Part I - Rowena House

As plotting devices go, it’s hard to beat a good synopsis, imho.

Not those last minute, submission synopses, written with a sense of despair that an entire story can ever be squeezed onto an A4 sheet of paper, no matter how narrow the margins.

I mean grabbing one of the many framework templates off the internet, or copying a favourite out of a book, and seeing what inspiration it can offer: how form can shape and enrich content.

If that sounds like cheating, I think of it like this: the content of a story will always be ours – personal, original, specific, owned – whereas form speaks to form, and experts in it are well worth listening to.

Confession 1: I became a bit addicted to template synopses while The Goose Road was out on submission and I no longer had the support of the Bath Spa MA in writing for young people. Rather than cheat-sheets, they helped me think about structure in a structured way. And I do love a good chart! They provide the comforting visual impression that unmanageable flights of imagination can be quantified, nailed down, and made better.

When the development offer for The Goose Road came along from Walker, these types of synopses offered a ready-made set of instructions about how to test the story’s premise, how to map out necessary revisions to the plot and deepen Angelique’s psychological arc, how to track act dynamics and plan scene polarity switches. They also helped me to identify gaps where epiphanies and/or reversals were needed, and monitor dramatic progressions and pace.

With all that objective and possible stuff to do, writer’s block became a bit of an affectation.

I know this sort of approach is anathema for a lot of people. To sceptics, I offer this quote from USA wordsmith, Chuck Wendig:

‘If outlining destroys your writing magic, editing/rewriting is going to f***ing obliterate it. One of the values of outlining is that it gives you a map forward – a fraying rope to reach for and cling to in the long darkness of the writing process. Another value is that it lets you muddle through the mistakes of your story early on – it’s a lot easier to fix a two-three page outline than it is to fix a 300 page novel. I promise.’

Convinced? Or at least willing to read on? If so, here are three of my current favourite synopsis writing techniques which I’m adapting for my historical work-in-progress for adult readers. I’ll take a look at another three next month. 

Jeff LyonsPremise Line Template

My notes about this system come from a 2013 article by Jeff Lyons based on his writing guide, Anatomy of A Premise Line.

The article seems to have vanished from Google, but a Kindle edition of the book is still available on Amazon. Personally, I think it’s a cracking method of driving down into the core of a story, and I’m going to buy his book to say thank you for the number of times I’ve found it invaluable as a writer, mentor and editor.

Lyons recommends establishing the story’s core structure first, then refine it into a solid premise line (or elevator pitch) before writing the book. Personally, I find his template invaluable mid-development, too.

For my PhD manuscript, I’m trusting to a creative instinct that an episode from the past which has nagged at me for well over a decade must have something to say. Transforming this instinct into a commercial premise line a la Jeff Lyons is part of the discovery process.

Lyons’ template is extremely practical. It also takes an exact form: that is, a story must be able to conform to this outline:

‘When an event sparks a character to action, that character acts with deliberate purpose until that action is opposed by an external force, leading to some [life altering] conclusion.’

I’ve added the life altering bit to this direct quote, but it’s there in the back-up text.

Basically, if the core elements of your outline cannot be mapped onto the template, then you don’t (yet) have a story; you have a situation.

To develop your situation into a story, you have to drill down into each clause of the template sentence, and provide specifics to describe the protagonist and their situation, what sparks them to act, what exactly their goal is, plus the nature of the forces of antagonism ranged against them, and the story’s conclusion.

I won’t steal his thunder by going into detail about his techniques for arriving at a blisteringly good story outline, but here is his worked example of a premise line for Peter Benchley’s Jaws:

‘When a fish-out-of-water, big-city cop moves to a small, coastal town dependent on tourism, he must team up with an oceanographer and a crusty sailor to convince the doubting, money-grubbing townsfolk to close their beaches because a giant, man-eating shark is lurking just offshore, until the shark strikes, forcing the townsfolk to allow the cop and his buddies to take on the shark mano-a-mano.’

Here’s mine for Dora Greenfield’s plotline in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell:

‘When a scatter-brained, bullied wife returns to her academic husband at work at a religious community which serves the Benedictine nuns of a Gloucestershire Abbey, she secretly plots with a young fellow guest to recover a legendary bell from the Abbey’s lake in defiance of the community’s narrow-minded moral code. The community breaks apart in the aftermath of their antics, freeing her from her incandescent husband.’

Having drafted a premise line for Beth Knyvet, co-protagonist in my work-in-progress, I have discovered one problem with Lyons’ system: I’m now so keen on her story I want it to be the A plot, not a subplot!

Story Grid Foolscap Template

Of all the step-by-step analytical frameworks for a full storyline from the big guns of film and TV scriptwriting, Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Foolscap Template is one I am returning to for the WIP for its dynamism and (apparent) simplicity.

To use it you have to buy into the notion of Story Values and polarity switches as plot drivers (from happy to sad, for example, alive to dead, afraid/brave, in prison/free etc.) and also spend time studying his ideas before the downloadable template makes sense, but if you’re a fan of Robert McKee a lot of the basics will be familiar.

Thinking about Story Grid for this blog, I believe the difference between it and many other whole-story templates – and here Christopher Vogel’s Writers Journey circular chart and John Yorke’s five-act table spring to mind – is the stress Coyne places from the outset on change and progression.

It seems there is limitless advice out there about story beats and structural plot points (the infamous inciting incidents, calls to adventure, midpoints, crises and climaxes) but once you know the function of these beats, it’s more helpful (to my mind at least) to delve into how to deliver them, rather than making up endless permutations on the basic model.

I’m going to have to read back into Story Grid carefully as my optimism that I could provide a potted version of it within the time I have available to write this blog proved illusory, and I don’t want to confuse anyone, including myself, as it is a thought-provoking and worthwhile exercise to apply Coyne’s methods to a story outline.

Its richness can be accessed here:


Long-form narrative synopsis

This is the opposite form of synopsis to Lyons’ one or two sentence premise line. It is a chronicle of the whole story, with the chains of causation that lead to structural high points described and analysed.

This depth of analysis allows the writer to delve into the thematic significance of major plot points, and to make sure the linkages between character-led actions and the protagonist’s psychological development/epiphanies are logical and progressively more dramatic.

Gaps and inconsistencies jump out of the text if you’re being honest with yourself at this level; there’s no place for weak plot devices to hide.

You can divide a narrative synopsis however you like. I prefer acts as divisions to keep the big picture in mind. If you’re summarizing a completed manuscript from the perspective of chapters, Darcy Patterson’s Novel Metamorphosis two-sentences per chapter tabular system still works best for me. Thanks, as always, to BookBoundUK for this recommendation.

For works-in-progress, it is well worth keeping each iteration of a narrative synopsis on file in case a brilliant new idea turns out to be nonsense; an earlier version can then come to the rescue.

Personally, I let narrative synopses expand to whatever length they need to be. They’re working documents which can be edited down to one or two pages later, depending on an agent’s or editor’s submission requirements.

Confession 2: as a writer, this is the development stage where my stories go to die.

My synopses folder contains half a dozen titles abandoned after a thorough narrative synopsis, mostly because I discovered that I did not believe in them enough to commit years of my life to writing them. Others are left festering there from the days when I was desperate to get Book Two published, but repeatedly hit an external brick wall.

With hindsight, this was an okay point to say goodbye to most of these ideas, even if it hurt at the time. Better to let something go than waste time pumping its weakly fluttering heart.

The exception is a World War I novel set in German-occupied eastern France which I still believe in and regret spiking because my then publisher didn’t want it, not least (I imagine) because anyone could tell the market for WW1 fiction was saturated by 2018.

One day I might go back to it; a lot of its energy is still stored in its various synopses.

Next month I’ll look at three more types of synopses currently being co-opted into service for the work-in-progress: James Scott Bell’s Complex Plot Grid, my own OCEAN psychological profiling table, and the classic structural ‘tent pole’ technique. If I’ve remembered by then why Story Grid is so brilliant I’ll add that too!

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your favourite plotting systems. And good reasons to hate synopses. Either way, hope you have fun with your New Year writing. 

Twitter: @HouseRowena


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Alan McClure said...

That was fascinating and helpful, thank you! I've been trying to develop my forward-planning skills and this provides a lot of options. Now I have fewer excuses for not getting down to work...

Nick Garlick said...

Every synopsis I've ever written ALWAYS goes wrong. I probably only end up using about 50%. No matter how hard I try to plan a story in advance, I always bog down and get lost. My brain turns to mush. As inefficient and hair-tearingly painful as it is, the only way I've found to write is start with an idea and... write. And then sort out the problems as I go along. It really is inefficient, but it's the only way I've found of getting anything done.

Rowena House said...

Hi! So delighted if it helped, Alan. I'm integrating these blogs with my PhD manuscript development, and the Premise Line really did help a great deal. I'd forgotten all the stages of this process, and applying them to my B plot exposed how many gaps there were in storytelling terms with the A plot. I had a huge amount of historical data but just hadn't sorted out the primary driver of my protagonist's first action, which just had to happen somehow. Which leapt out as feeble when I compared it with Beth's primary motivation. Hope it works for you, too.

Nick, it's fascinating how very different our methods are. Whatever works has to be right! I discovered early on that I have zero instinct about what makes a story. On the MA, there was a tacit understanding that we would have absorbed enough stories to be able to use our intuition, whereas I found myself waffling aimlessly. Good luck getting to The End again. I'm happy with the idea the WiP might be the only novel I finish so rather wallowing in the process.