A Story's Phenomenal Cosmic Power… in an Itty-Bitty Living Space
Updated: Apr 6
By Erik Day
Whatever stage a story is in, from the germ of an idea to mid-Work In Progress, to a finished manuscript collecting electronic dust on your hard drive, a writer needs to be able to pitch the idea. It doesn't matter if the pitch is to an agent, an editor, a friend or even that best-selling author who looks back from the mirror: how does one convey a novel's worth of story in a sentence?
It's hard enough conjuring a story out of Aladdin's Lamp, but getting it back in? It gets harder when you realize there are different audiences for that bite-sized epic: are you selling the idea to an agent or explaining the concept to your friend? Further, how do you diagram that narrative if they need to know more? Or more importantly, if you need to know more?
Glad you could join us: part two of jamming a genie back into the lamp. Part One was Bryan's workshop on log lines. In today's episode, we're going to look at Synopsis vs Summary, and use that as a springboard to non-destructive outlining.
First, let's look at two incredibly useful tools: Synopsis and Summary. A little like the difference between a mallet and a hammer, the description methods are synonymous, but not the same. You're getting the gist of the story in both versions, but there it stops.
A Quick Summary
A summary is a technical encapsulation and despite what some might evangelize, there is no universal length. It is as long as the writer needs it (or as long as the editor requests it). It contains characters and plot arcs at the very minimum, and for more academic reviews, may also touch on themes.
In a summary, the points of dramatic tension don't have the benefit of texture or emotional investment, so the challenge for a summary is to give just enough context to keep it compelling.
Herein lies an opportunity. Laying out a chain of events as dramatic points (or beats for the scripty types), gives the writer the advantage of discovering plot holes before Amazon reviewers drive trucks through them.
As for common use, a planning outline or the back jacket of a non-fiction guide is likely to be a summary.
A Brief Synopsis
A synopsis is more of a teaser, where instead of whole plot arcs, it dangles the start of the journey, plus the risks and rewards that drive the plot. A synopsis has to set up audience expectations without dropping any spoilers. It sells the story, enticing a reader or potential ticket-buyer.
The synopsis is the back-jacket of a novel, or if you're a visual sort, the one-sheet for a movie. Log lines for scripted material are really short synopses.
If you missed the log line session, it's worth diving into. We're not get into that level of detail here, but if you're new to the game, get the juices flowing with some great log line examples from filmdaily.
The Outline: a Map of Experiences
Once a writer is past the 1-2 sentence log line length, they're on the shores of outlining – and those are treacherous waters. The length of an outline should be exactly… what you need it to be.
A one-sheet is a kind of synopsis-flavored outline. Named after the length, it's optimal when it sticks to the formula: usually 5 or so paragraphs that writers use for an extended elevator pitch. A treatment may weigh in at 3 pages, with one page dedicated to character blurbs and another two on the plot beats. Very sell-related for these kinds of outlines.
More descriptive is a summary outline, where we drop all pretenses to tell it like it is. This is useful for any story, but it's a key tool for technical plots like thrillers, procedurals or sweeping epics… Or a 30-page academic analysis of how Tolstoy philosophically tells literary critics to f— off.
The format is just as varied: there are two common themes that tie together six or seven different methods, and those themes are data and progression. It's really that simple. Some of the magic in those authoritative and very valid methods is how they help a writer organize those two categories into narrative-related thoughts.
One of the most famous is Campbell's Heroic Journey, which boils down how the masters have done it since time immemorial. Do you need to follow that? No. No more than you need to follow the beat points for Saving the Cat. The only true rules you need to know are that of human psychology for becoming invested in, and compelled by, a story. The outline becomes the writer's map for what the reader will experience.
To Be is to Do
It's your story, so you're interested in it. The tough part is stepping outside your head and asking if anybody else would be interested in it. This is often the bane of "pantsers." Flying by the seat of your pants is usually borne from the love of a character and an interest in where they're going. Problem: unless the writer conveys all that special sauce to the audience, we just don't care.
Even for a pantser, outlining is a way to keep the story honest. Consider it a list of moments to ensure that all the details that make a character real (or beloved or at least compelling) also make their way to the narrative.
One of the dangers of outlining, for pantsers, is the risk of revealing too much – usually to themselves. For some who write as an exploration, planning it can take the wind out of the creative sails. Outlining should be the scaffolding that helps build the story, not the demolition that blows it up. So how does a writer balance a complicated plot arc with making sure it doesn't have major holes?
First, if you're a pantser, check these thoughts on outlining from fellow pantser Jerry Jenkins.
Back? Good. The second thing is to start with a simple formula and branch out only where you feel the need to know more. Pantsers don't need the whole map, they only need direction to their next waypoint.
To Do is to Be
The flip side of pantsers are planners. Here, the narratives are often high-concept stories that revolve around doing something. Usually something very particular, be it tossing a ring in a volcano or getting revenge on a large marine mammal.
Even character-driven stories are appropriate for a plan, if only because that ensures the writer hits the key points illustrating who that person is. You've heard the trope "Show, Don't Tell"? This is where that lives.
The bane of the planners is the assumption that story continuity requires showing every single step. That's when a sweeping family drama devolves into a procedural for divorce lawyers. The narrative dangers come from the opposite direction of the pantsers but lands in the same spot: the audience is reading it and thinking "Who Cares?"
Do Be Do Be Doo
So, as for different outlining methods: use one. They write books on each one and given the range of writers and methods, I can't endorse one over the other. What I will do is boil it down to the commonalities between them: data and progression.
Here's where synopsis vs summary really comes to play. We're going to do a little writing, and we're going to do both methods. They both have their place.
We Have Liftoff…
A great way of planning your outline is to think of your story like a Space Shot. The exciting part is launching the rocket: that's what the audience shows up for. The writer, however, is the agency that's gonna loft that tin can.
As the writer, you:
Need to build the launchpad.
Need the recruit and train the crew.
Need to build and fuel the rocket.
…Only then is it time to light the candle.
Planners know they are Houston, guiding the characters on their orbital arc.
Danger: don't remove the audience from the action. There are a thousand different cameras around the launchpad: every part is important, but keep the lens focused on the dramatic part.
Pantsers are in the capsule – the hands of the characters as they adjust the controls.
Danger: if Mission Control (you) hasn't researched where you're going, your characters are going to make decisions that don't make sense within their context.
Ian Fleming was a spy, but he wasn't an assassin. Tom Clancy never served aboard a submarine. J.R.R. Tolkien never stepped foot in an active volcano. Unless you're writing an autobiography, don't be true to the writer, be true to the character. Research.
If you have material from your own personal Log Line exploration, use it. Otherwise:
1) Cue voiceover: "In A World…" What's the setting? This is pure, raw, narrative data. Even if the audience is going in blind, the writer still has to build the world before the character can do something in it.
2) Character Name: what's the sound of it? Right or wrong, there is perceptual psychology at work. Maximize it, play against type or prove it's irrelevant – but don't ignore it. This is more critical data.
3) What are the characters? Not "who" are the characters; rather, "what" are they? Gender, race and appearance all have real-world effects on a person. Those consequences will be true of any character as well. Depending on the genre, those might define the motivations of the plot. Even when they don't, they can still add texture and believability.
More importantly, what's their profession and/or hobbies? Everybody works with the genetic and geographic hand they're dealt, but what they do is often how they choose to define themselves. Pick the thing that defines them and use that as a primary tool to move the plot.
4) Goals and Desires: What have the key characters lost or what do they want? This might've happened before the narrative even starts. As noted by fellow Q&P writer Bryan Mahoney: give this treatment to the antagonist(s) as well.
5) Motifs and Subtexts: Here's where you get academic on yourself: cross the setting with the character desire and you'll find hints of your story's themes.
Is it a reflection of humanity?
An illustration of the consuming nature of revenge?
Does it explore the balance of hard technology and creative mysticism that keeps hope alive?
6) Targets and Objectives: Where do the characters think they can achieve their goal or grab their desired object? Or get it back?
7) The Opposition: Who (and/or what) is standing in the protagonist's way? Writing 101: is the antagonist a character, a force of nature or the hero's own inner doubts? A compelling story usually has several waves of all three in different ratios.
Further, to really ratchet up the tension, make the antagonist dynamic. Interesting villains rarely isolate themselves in their lair, waiting for the hero to show up. Rather, they're out, trying to complete their plans. This can add a time element to the sense of urgency and it influences the story arc from the other direction.
Now you've got your essential data: you've built your launchpad and trained the flight crew. It's time to blast off!
8) Conflict: The first fight of the progression. What happens?
Do they win or lose?
Are they wounded or dead?
Were bystanders injured or killed?
Do they make a discovery that changes their goals (and their path)?
9) Response: Depending on that first conflict, what must they do next?
Nothing: something is coming for them!
Immediately file an appeal and seek a change in venue.
After taking a bullet/dagger/humiliating defeat in the dance-off, they need to recuperate and regroup.
10) Repeat: Summarize two more pivotal plot steps. These are the biggies, the moments that mark transitions from one act to the next.
Are those actual fights? Nobody is expecting (or even wants) gripping courtroom drama in an Ironman movie.
Travel destinations? Flying the house to South America needs to happen, but it only only serves to open the door to the next step.
Discoveries? Without infiltrating the map room, the Well of the Souls remains hidden in the sands.
11) Resolution: how does the narrative conclude?
Does the protagonist "win"? Or do they lose?
Do they redefine what it means to win?
What are the long-term consequences? This opens the possibility for a sequel: the chance for revenge or the rise of an heir.
What you've just created: a summary outline.
Part Two: copy your work and call it "synopsis outline."
Fade the technical details to capture the style and mood instead. Measure conflict resolution not by what's accomplished, but rather what's realized. Sprinkle in empathy for the protagonist and now you're selling it.
If you need, I'll loan you my ellipses…