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Working Outlines and Synopses

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David Farland discusses how to write a working outline / synopsis.



When you send a novel proposal to a publisher or a movie proposal to a studio, you’ll often be asked to send an “outline” with your package. The word outline is used rather casually, and it often can be misleading.

Many publishers and producers really want a “synopsis,” a brief description of what happens in the book or screenplay, often told in as little as a page. However, a good book publisher will often leave the length of that synopsis up to you, or they might ask for three pages or maybe even five. I’ve known some authors who will write up to 50 pages. But all that the editors want is a brief description. I like to break it up like this:

Paragraph one answers the following questions: Who is my protagonist? (Sixteen-year-old Desiree McConnel.) Where is my story set? (64 million years ago beside Lake Gunaya which is current-day Saint George, Utah.) And what is my major conflict? (Desiree is a time-traveling sightseer who has come to watch the destruction of the Jurassic world as a huge meteor is about to strike Earth, when an angry triceratops trashes her transporter.)

That first paragraph launches the story. Now, I might want to elaborate on these things. For example, I might explain that Desiree’s mother has just died, and her father brought her on this trip to bring her out of her funk. Or maybe I’ll explain that she’s fascinated with dinosaurs and secretly wishes to avert the coming decimation, or she’s attracted to a hunk named Beckett who has also tagged along.

Or maybe I’ll want to heighten the conflicts. Sure, there are going to rampaging Utah raptors, but Desiree’s growing attraction to Beckett will surely become an important conflict, and that funk is just going to get worse when she sees her father killed. And when she finds herself struggling to breathe air filled with micro-carbons from the destruction of the Earth and gets to see first-hand why everything died on the planet for the next three hundred thousand years, the whole story is going to become more and more grim. Especially since she realizes that she and her new boyfriend won’t make it—humans didn’t evolve 64 million years ago.

But that opening will be important.

The next couple of paragraphs become just as important. You have to answer the questions: What conflicts arise out of the situation? How do they morph and grow? What does my protagonist do to try to handle them? And how are all of these going to surprise your editor and reader. This is where the art of storytelling really becomes important. This is where you have to begin blowing your editor’s mind, throwing surprising twists into the mix.

This mid-section will also be the point where I begin weaving things together. Maybe our protagonist flees the devastated time-travel vehicle and tries to climb into some hills to find shelter. I could detail how her father checks out a cave and is killed, not realizing that even raptors need shelter. I might get into how she has to huddle with Beckett for warmth, having their first romantic interludes, and that they soon find themselves hunted by a raptor that has developed a taste for human flesh. Then the meteor strikes, sending shockwaves around the world and micro-meteors go blasting into the atmosphere, so that the air becomes unbreathable. Huge lightning storms begin striking, setting forests afire, and a global ice-age sets in. 

The conflicts need to weave together and build, and our protagonist needs to grow through her struggles, until we reach the climax of the book. This is our final paragraph or two.  Is Desiree saved by a rescue team? If so, is she sixteen or ninety-two when it happens? Does her boyfriend become a lover, a husband, a meal for a T-Rex? Could she possibly decide after living a life in the Jurassic age, that she wants to stay? What does she learn from all of this? Does she find happiness?

That’s the conclusion of your synopsis, and you really can put an entire book into one page.

Writing a great synopsis is an art in itself, and it is one of the most valuable skills you can develop. When an editor wants to buy a manuscript, he might show your synopsis to the publisher and the marketing department, and if you’ve got a stellar outline, it can add a zero or two to the amount you’ll be paid on your advance. It can also motivate the entire publishing company to push your book big before it is even purchased.

Think of your synopsis as an advertisement for your book. You want it to sell the reader, hook them into reading the longer manuscript.

Often the publisher or movie studio wants something longer than a page. For example, I recently got hired by a producer to put together a proposal for a movie, and I got to outline it in twenty whole pages, single spaced! (That’s called a movie “treatment,” but it’s much like a synopsis.

For big books, ones where the publisher is going to invest millions of dollars, the publisher might want a detailed synopsis that is seventy or eighty pages. I’ve only ever heard of a publisher asking for an outline this long once, but you should know that it happens.

A “working outline” is different from a synopsis, though, and I recommend that you write one for every novel you write, and often even for short stories. The working outline is a document that I use as a writer. In it, I like to break my novel down scene by scene and plan who will be in the scene, what significant action will occur, and make any notes to myself. Here is an example of such a scene:

Chapter 9—The Appetizer—With the time machine damaged, Desiree tries to help Beckett repair it, but her father warns that the radioactive power source is dangerous. It can damage her reproductive system. Her father doesn’t want her to get near it. Beckett gives her a look and she realizes that he is thinking, “We might be stuck here forever.” He might even be thinking of the family they might raise. She doesn’t want to consider such things—they’ve only ever kissed— but feels she should worry about her health.  So she goes to a small rise and stands guard while her father and Beckett work. She’s terrified of the pack of Utah raptors that are hunting in the area, when suddenly the sky lights up and a huge meteor blazes across the horizon. There are several deafening explosions as pieces of it fracture, and she watches it for ninety seconds until suddenly it impacts. The ground bucks and seems almost to liquify as it begins to roar, and in seconds she sees huge dust clouds exploding up in the distance, crowned by lightning. Dinosaurs roar and hoot and whistle in terror, and flocks of pterodactyls take flight out over the lake, while freshwater fish seem to try to leap out of the lake. Note to self: Make the end of the world spectacular.

With each scene in my outline, I put in the name of the point of view character in color so that I can track my POV characters visually over the course of the novel. (This is important if you are using multiple POVs). I also put in the actions that they take and the things that happen to them. I put in the new conflicts that arise or the ones that are resolved or the conflicts that escalate or broaden. I want to make sure that I keep track of rising stakes, mysteries that are bought up or solved, romances that bud, and so on. I might also make notes to myself about how to handle the scene, emotions to evoke, and so on.

When I finish writing a scene, I will go back and make a notation, showing how many pages the scene came out to be, so that I can see how well I’m controlling the pacing.

A working outline can easily be twenty pages long. I will even add in bits of dialog or description that come to me in the middle of the night, so that my working outline might grow to be a hundred pages. No one but me will ever see that outline. It’s just a tool that I use. Yes, I’ve got a working outline for my latest book, and no you can’t see it.

In fact, there is some good software that writers use for this. Scrivener for example will help you track your scenes and characters and write a nice summary for each scene, and then you can expand each description into a scene pretty easily. There are a lot of other programs that do the same, but I haven’t used most of them to make comparisons.

Still, learning to write a great synopsis is a valuable skill, and every writer needs to learn to throw together a working outline and keep developing even while you’re in the writing process.



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Yes very helpful 


I find writing a synopsis one of the hardest things to do.  It takes me ages and lot of aggro to get a halfway decent 1-page summary. 


So any advice like this is always appreciated.😁

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7 hours ago, carolinamtne said:

It seems to be a consensus here that writing the summary is harder than writing the story! 

Writing a good summary is a learned skill. I wrote all the blurbs for my Space Opera e-zine back in the day. If writing a summary is hard, you'd think writing a blurb is even harder but they fell off my fingers like apples off trees.

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