How to Use a Long-Form Synopsis to Plan Your Novel

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From Jane Friedman:

Years ago, author Jen Malone mentioned in an #mglitchat discussion that she sends out a rough-form synopsis to critique partners during planning stages with the expectation not that they’d heavily critique it, but that they could ask 10–12 “what if” brainstorming questions to get her creative juices flowing. I thought it was a fabulous idea, so my critique group tried it. The results were amazing—this tool is now a permanent part of my toolbox and it can be part of yours too. Here’s how.

Draft your long-form synopsis

Unlike the 500–1000 word synopsis that often goes out to agents or editors with pitch packages, this one is meant to be messy. There’s no set format, length, number of named characters, or any of the things that tend to strike fear in the hearts of writers when creating that other type of synopsis. Instead, think of this type of synopsis as a brainstorming document. It’s a dumping ground for all the things you’d like to work into your new story based on the prewriting you’ve already done on your concept and characters. It covers all the major characters, the main plot and character arcs, but also the subplots, the twists, the unexpected turns.

Step One: Put whatever you know about the story down on paper, but make sure you at least have the following:

  • Age category (MG, YA, adult)
  • Genre
  • Your “what if?” big-picture idea
  • Protagonist’s story goal
  • Antagonist’s story goal
  • Protagonist’s change arc

Step Two: Now it’s time to start to fill in the gaps and shape this into something with some story logic in it. I use the Tent Pole Scenes Outline to start my brainstorming on potential story structure. It’s based on classic fairytale structure (with a dash of Aristotle) for this. Not because I only tell fairytales, or because I think Aristotle’s three-act structure is the only way to tell a story, but because this familiar format helps me tease out my plot from all the various threads floating around in my mind.

  1. Once Upon a Time (ordinary world)
  2. But then…moment everything changed (story problem)
  3. It was awful until (confrontation)…
  4. Then the hero figured it out (climax)…
  5. And they all lived happily ever after (resolution)

Step Three: The first draft is likely to be a total mess. And that’s OK. The point here is to capture everything you know. Now read through what you’ve written and make a list of questions you need to answer before you’re ready to send this to your writing pals for their round of “what if?” questions. Answering those questions might involve looping back to look at craft resources you have on hand around character, plot, world-building, genre and age category. That’s normal—take the time you need to really feel good about this step. Keep taking passes through the document until you’ve addressed everything from steps one and two above.

Your resulting document should be somewhere in the range of 3–7 pages. If you’ve written 20, that’s too long to share with your critique partners. Go back through and pull out extra details and store them elsewhere. You want something high-level enough that you can read it aloud during a critique group without everyone getting lost or starting to scroll Twitter.

Note: It can be tempting to send this to your pals even if you know there are plot holes. Don’t do that! Take care of all the low-hanging fruit on your own so that they can really focus on deepening the work you’ve already done.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

13 thoughts on “How to Use a Long-Form Synopsis to Plan Your Novel”

  1. ‘Cause nothing’s quite as much fun (or productive) as writing the same novel two or three times: once in the long-form synopsis and/or in the outline, and then once when you, well, um, you know, actually write the story. (grin)

    • For some folks, writing a story is a voyage of discovery, letting the situation and characters take you where they will. The narrative itself will emerge out of this journey. It might need tweaking and revision or it might be good to go from the start. It might go straight through to the envisioned end or it might go in previously unexpected directions.
      For such folk, the journey is the reward.

      Others don’t feel comfortable freeforming and insist on a rigid structure upfront.
      (Like the OP)
      Still Others run somewhere in between, compiling notes and data upfront to serve as signpoints before starting a guided journey.

      It takes all kinds.
      The only right process is the one that works for you, even if you wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else.

      • Indeed it does. Having no idea what I was doing when I wrote my first novel, I turned to an outline concept to hold it together (better than nothing — I don’t care for pudding).

        But now (11 books later) I just use a tentpole framework to keep the sections focused, and riff off the actions of the characters as they ricochet through the framework — I can count on them surprising me now, if I prod them the right way. It’s always productive for me in ways I couldn’t possibly predict in advance. Random activities in the earlier sections become available for me to use structurally in later ones. Chekhov may have deliberately planted his gun early to be used later, but I just let the characters come up organically with something that I can then turn to use later on. Same principle, different order.

        More and more it becomes a process of discovery based on scenes that I (and hopefully the reader) find emotionally appealing. I may not know where such a scene plugs in, when I first think of it, but it goes in the pile awaiting assignment for structural use.

      • Yup. I’m a prolific professional novelist across several genres specifically because I was able to let go of my unreasoning fears, trust my characters to tell the story that they, not I, are living, and Just Write. I’m currently on my 69th novel, and I started my first novel in October 2014. And frankly, I’m a slacker compared to really prolific writers. Prior to 2014, I outlined one novel for close to three years. I never did finish the outline (or write the novel) because I was so bored with the story by then.

        You’re right, of course. It takes all kinds. But I constantly preach what I do on my Journal website because people can hear about non-myth-imbued writing at so few places.

        I’ve never said writing into the dark is the “only” way to write—that would just be stuipd—but WITD greatly increases your productivity and provides a rapid ascension along the learning curve of Craft because you get a great deal more practice at actually writing. This is not opinion. It is all numbers and facts.

        All of that said, and as much as I love it when another writer learns to trust him/herself, I don’t really care how anyone else writes. Doesn’t affect my bottom line in the slightest.

        • Still it doesn’t hurt (or cost much) to give dreamers an alternative to the academic party line. Giving back a bit? 😉

          • Of course it doesn’t. And that’s exactly what I do. I even give away the PDF archives to my Journal. You can look practically anywhere and find people talking about (and selling how-to books about) the myths of writing as advanced by the academics: you must outline, write, revise, seek critical input, rewrite, polish. At least “write” is in there somewhere. 🙂

            What I teach is more of a letting go. Same thing Dean Wesley Smith used to teach. That’s where I learned. Unfortunately, Dean stopped talking as much about writing into the dark, Heinlein’s Rules, etc. But I teach what I learned from him, after I practiced enough to make it my own. I also share my own (rare) setbacks and failures so others can learn from them without having to experience them. Today’s post is an excellent example:

            • The critical voice is indeed negative. And unavoidably so since it is a reaction to the creative impulse.

              Asimov claimed being a writer required a strong ego which suggests the critical voice comes from the superego. 😉

              Regardless, the critical voice can serve an analytical purpose but it can’t be allowed the final say to avoid paralysis…in writing or in daily life. Part of living with intent.

              • “the critical voice can serve an analytical purpose”

                But for only one opinion: the writer’s. And what the writer eventually “perfects” will seem horribly marred to others. One person’s treasure is another person’s trash.

                Maybe more importantly, anything that comes from the critical mind is not from the characters and therefore is not part of the characters’ original, authentic story — or the writer’s unique voice.

                • Agreed.
                  The writer must be the ultimate judge.
                  The beauty of Indie, Inc is there is no longer need to submit to anybody else’s opinions.

        • Tbf, it’s hard to say how much is learning to trust yourself and how much actually internalizing a plot structure, thus no longer needing to plan it in advance.

          I can wing a ton of things and not others and I’ve learned to quit being disappointed in myself for the things I can’t yet.

          • Do you have alpha / beta readers? I quickly learned to trust my instincts when mine said aloud the same things I’d been thinking, about the strengths or weaknesses of a piece. Now I’ve learned to heed my inner voice.

            I think you’re right most storytellers internalize plot structure by osmosis. When I first heard of Save the Cat, I was pleasantly surprised that it “validated” my instinctive habit of writing in 4 acts. I “plants” (pants and plan), in that I know the turning points of those acts, but I pants how I’m getting there. But that instinct came from repeated exposure to stories in different media, which is why I’ve always agreed with the assessment that a good writer must consume a broad variety of stories in order to tell them.

            Good that you learned to stop being hard on yourself, which I think is a sign in itself that you’ve learned to trust yourself more. Yes, you may not be able to do a thing yet, but you trust that you will if you apply yourself to learning to.

            • Ages ago, in a comic book letter column, Dennis O’Neil was asked by a fan how one became a comic book writer. His answer was along the lines of “read lots of comic books both good and bad. Then read lots of other things. The more you read the better prepared you’ll be.”

              One can learn a lot from reading different genres and media, fiction and non-fiction. Learning from example(s) is usually more efective than academic mandates but in the end doing is the best teacher of what works for you.

              • Hey Felix,

                (Jamie, Felix, sorry to respond here but apparently our thread wore too thin. (grin)

                For my stories, the reader is the ultimate judge. And I don’t bother reading reviews. It’s none of my business what someone else thinks of my stories. That’s his or her opinion.

                But the stories themselves are not important, or rather, any importance is imposed by the reader. For me, they’re only a few minutes’ or hours’ entertainment. Nothing more.

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