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Synopsis Workshop

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This is only the first part of the lecture, it covers general act theory and the snowflake method. The next part will look at specific plot shapes. This copyright for all this content belongs to Mare Kuntz, and it is intended for future publication, so please don't reproduce it without permission. How To Write A Synopsis Or Plot Outline I will be using the term synopsis here because I think the paragraph-based synopsis is a more natural form to write in that the point-based outline. The more natural the format, the less working with it distracts one from the creative work one's mind ought to be doing. But, everything I say here should apply to an outline as well. Why is a synopsis useful? A synopsis lays out the plot of a longer story in a short format which is easy to read and modify. In this way the synopsis of a story is much like a game design document. A synopsis can be used to: - Organize and refine one's own ideas for a story. - Troubleshoot a story which feels like it has a problem or a flaw. - Estimate the wordcount of a planned story as a test whether the story idea is an appropriate size for a movie or novel. - Communicate a story idea to team members helping develop the story or implement it as a comic, movie, or game. - Sell a story to authority figures such as an agent, editor, producer, team lead, or client commissioning a personalized story. - A synopsis can be used by a team lead to assign development of specific settings, characters, or portions of the plot to different team members, or set due dates by which each portion must be developed. The biggest difficulty with explaining to people how to create a synopsis of their plot is that different story types have different plot structures. The second biggest difficulty is not knowing what the writer is starting with – some people write a synopsis or outline to rough out the plot before writing the actual story, others are trying to condense an actual manuscript into a page or two for an agent or editor to evaluate (or for a fellow writer to troubleshoot a plot which "isn't working"). So what I'm going to do is explain the more difficult of the two cases, creating a synopsis for a story which doesn't exist yet. I''ll start with the most generic "shape" of plot, then describe some specific specialized ones. Then at the end I'll comment on extracting a synopsis from an existing manuscript. One of the simplest theories of story structure is that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and these are the three basic parts of the story's structure. These three pieces are referred to as acts, thus the overall structure is called a "three act structure". However the middle is usually bigger than the beginning and the end. For larger story formats like movies and novels, the middle is typically broken in half to make it more manageable, converting the structure into a "four act structure". Whether you prefer a three or four act structure, the first and last acts are the same, only the middle one(s) are divided a bit differently. In general, the purposes of the acts are as follows: Beginning Act – Introduce the main characters and the setting, present the initial incident, and show the main character making a first attempt to deal with their immediate problem. Middle Act(s) – Show that the problem was more complex than initially appeared, or that the main character's personal development was lacking and needs to be built up before they can defeat the problem, or that when the first problem was solved a more thorny and dire one sprang up, or that the attempts to solve the first problem accidentally created a bigger mess instead. Explore different facets of the story's theme until the theme is fully revealed. Test the main character in various ways; possibly the MC is rewarded or punished, but more importantly this period of rising action should challenge the MC's motivation to accomplish whatever is the main goal they are pursuing within the story. Ending Act – The main character has been pushed to his or her limits and now they face a final confrontation where they must make a climactic decision or take a decisive, irreversible action. Victory and defeat are meted out, and this makes a statement about which of the goals and approaches used by various characters in the story were good ideas and which were bad ideas – the 'moral' of the story. Each act can also be regarded as a plot structure of its own. Typically acts end with a mini-climax, this is called the "act break". Act break types include: "crossing the threshold", "complication", "reversal", and "denouement". Randy Ingarmanson in his "snowflake method" refers to the act mini-climaxes as "three disasters and an ending", and suggest that thinking them up is the second step of creating a story synopsis. (The first step being to describe the basic story idea in 1-3 sentences. This shortest possible description of a story is also called the "premise" or "logline". Another related term is "story question", meaning the central question of a story – for example, "Will the hobbit manage to destroy the one ring before someone takes it from him?" or "Will the hero and heroine find true love together despite the many barriers keeping them apart?") A fourth of a novel is still about 20,000 words, and a fourth of a screenplay is 30 pages. That's a lot. So, some people find it helpful to break story structure up into more acts. If you break it up enough you get down to chapters, and if you go even further you get to scenes – a scene is the basic unit of plot, so a plot synopsis or outline should not go beyond the scene level because that's where the synopsis turns into the fully-developed story. Some people like to plan their work out chapter by chapter or scene by scene, while others find that planning in too much detail demotivates them from actually writing the story (or that it makes the synopsis of their manuscript too long for the publisher's specifications). If you do want to plan your story out at this level of detail, realize that a novel may easily have forty or fifty chapters and more than a hundred scenes. Probably too many to think about all at once, so it's better to not aim for so much detail with the first draft of your synopsis, but instead write a less detailed version first and then expand to more detail with the second or third draft. The method I myself use for writing a synopsis is a somewhat modified version of the snowflake method: 1. Describe the story concept in 2-4 sentences. This step gets the idea written down so you don't accidentally forget it, and also helps you get the idea clear in your mind and focus your thoughts on it. 2. Write a 1-4 paragraph story summary expanding the story concept. The goal of this step is to figure out some or all of the major plot points including the ending, and if you like act structure each paragraph should correspond to an act. But don't panic if some of the plot points you just can't think of anything for; get the structure established even if some of the content is missing. 3. Again, expand your summary to go scene by scene, this time it should be 1-6 pages long depending on what type of story you are writing. Goals of this step are to name any characters you haven't yet, and explain at each point what each character is feeling and why they are doing whatever they are doing. It's okay to still be missing details of exactly what it is they are doing if you are creating your synopsis as a prewriting exercise. However if you are submitting this synopsis to an editor or publisher it needs to be polished by trimming off extra wordage, making sure sentences sound nice (all the usual editing), and making sure the synopsis is no longer than necessary. 4. If you've written the synopsis before writing the story, now may be the time to write the actual story – write the first scene and just go from there. But optionally you could expand again, adding more detail. If you want to write an expanded and more detailed synopsis, it might be useful to look at "scene and sequel" theory. Either way, it's important to realize you are not chained to your synopsis, it's not set in stone. If you change your mind about what you want to happen, rewrite the synopsis to reflect the change, as many times as you want. (Whew that was long. [grin] You all are welcome to post comments on this part, there's no need to wait for the next part to be posted.)

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I agree. I used this type of sypnosis for our scenario last year while writing my first script with a co writer. We are working on scripts 2 and 3. Its a christian world war 2 dram television series. Script 1 was written in a month. With script 2 It all deals with bootcamp.

I never been but research for this scenario has been most interesting from history shows, movies and from relatives who were in the wars of WW2 and Vietnam.

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My sypnosis was about three or four sentences long to allow the reader know how the story was going to flow. I have also noticed that in some novel books and even for finalized manuscripts for television and feature films it all depends on how the writer is writing his or her story.

Some books tell you in most starting positions you should not write camera direction. You should focus on details of what each character you want to represent in the scene. Some writers have had a paragraph of the scene or two to give the reader what was going on in the scene. The point of not writing camera locations was allowing the director you wanted to hire for your script is for him or her to see and how your script will flow onto the screen for the audience to partake in viewing.

But when I wrote my first script I did do the camera angles and directions. Due to the fact I will be working as the director on the script from the previous post I have mentioned.

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This is what I think about synopsis and what goes into writing one. I agree that writing synopsis has a use in designing a story.

The role of a synopsis

A synopsis is a factual account of the story. It names the story elements and their changes during the story. The content of a synopsis flows in the same order as the reader would encounter in the story. A good synopsis is a substitutes the presentation to allow the reader to follow the story, and does not contain any information that is inconsequential.

The writing of a synopsis

To write a synopsis is to identify and list the consequential infomation within the story that the reader must know to follow the rest of the story.

Typical vital information includes:

o Names of characters as they are known in the story
o Goals and plans of the characters as presented in the story
o Relations of characters as they appear in the story
o Resources obtained or lost in the story
o Locations and conditions of the characters and resources
o Events that changes goals, relations, resources, locations.

Consequential information are those that are used in subsequent sections of the story. Defining consequential information requires defined division points of the story. The two required points are the initial point and the final point. A reader that reads the synopsis of the entire story should understand the message of the story. Unlike the story concept, the synopsis does not state the message. A division point is inserted for each change required to deliver the message.

Defining division point

The following is an example of defining a division point.

Story: Rabbit racing the turtle

Message: One that is powerful but lazy can be surpassed by one that is steadily achieving.

0.1 - Rabbit and Turtle decide to have a race
1.0 - Turtle wins the race

If the synopsis contains only these points, the message is lost in the synopsis. The synopsis must contain the additional points:

0.1 - Rabbit and Turtle decide to have a race.
0.3 - Rabbit has a huge lead and decides to rest thinking that the Turtle would never win.
0.7 - Rabbit wakes up but it is too late to catch up.
1.0 - Turtle wins the race.

The analyzed content of each section:

[Name] Rabbit
[Name] Turtle
[Relation] Rabbit and Turtle are competitors in a race
[Location] Rabbit: Starting line
[Location] Turtle: Starting line
[Event] Rabbit and Turtle start

[Location] Rabbit is far ahead of Turtle
[Perspective] Rabbit: Turtle would never win
[Event] Rabbit goes to sleep

[Event] Rabbit wakes up
[Location] Turtle is almost at the finish line

[Event] Turtle crosses finish line and wins.

When the story is analyzed like this, it can be seen that each piece of information is required in the story as well as in the synopsis. The story delivers the information through its expositions or dialogues.

Reasons to analyze a synopsis

When you break down the information, you could query it and get some representations of the story. For example, if you query only the [Location] information, you would get a graph of the positions of the actors. Suppose there is a scene where Chicken is crossing the road and it is hit by rabbit on its left, and Rabbit and Turtle are on the different sides of Chicken, then you know that this new scene can only be inserted between 0.7 and 1.0, when Rabbit is running toward Turtle.

Listing the [Name] allows you to know which actor may be placed in a scene. Listing the [Event] allows you to know the range of actions an actor needs to perform in a game. Listing the [Perspective] allows you to compose the AI that simulates the decisions of the actors.

The AI of Turtle is: Keeps going toward the finish line no matter what
The AI of Rabbit is: Runs only if a competitor is not far behind.

Once you get the AI of the characters and the changes in their AI in the story, you can use that to judge whether a character behaves out of character when you insert a scene.

You could enrich the story by introducing elements that would render the AI of a successful character useless, or elements that would make a character that is normally useless useful.

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My comment just tend to be long. What I posted was what I thought after reading Sunandshadow's perspective. I am not the one putting this together.

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Original post by Tim Ingham-Dempster
sunandshadow, Wai:

Thanks for the effort put into this. I don't have anything to add to it but wanted to make my appreciation known. Good start so far.

Thank you, that's nice to read after I've had a harried day. [smile]

Wai - That's an interesting way to interpret synopses in a game-like way. I only thought of one thing I'd add, and it's not even something I mentioned in my post: backstory. When I am writing a synopsis of a story from scratch, often I spend the first paragraph or two explaining the situation when the story begins, which might include circumstances of a character's birth, or childhood trauma, or a social custom of the story world, or how magic works in this world... all sorts of things which will not actually appear in the first few pages of the story. If it did that would be an awkward, boring infodump and would fail at hooking the reader or beginning in medias res, and might also reduce suspense throughout the story, because some of a reader's urge to keep reading is motivated by their curiosity about the world and the characters' pasts.

Instead this information needs to be delivered in bite-sized bits at appropriate places in the story - not so late the reader is confused, but not so early they aren't relevant to the plot. Some people make the mistake of thinking that because infodumping is bad, putting worldbuilding information into a story at all is bad, but this is wrong. This kind of information is like peanuts - no one would sit down and eat a whole bowl of peanuts for dinner, that would probably make you sick, but they are great scattered throughout an ice cream sundae. They are overly-intense alone, but just right when alternated with vanilla, chocolate, maybe banana slices... (Erm yeah, sunandshadow is hungry lol)

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Okay, on to Specific Plot Types!

Might as well talk about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room first. The Hero Monomyth is the single most written-about plot type in the field of writing theory. This is because it's one of the oldest plot types, and being able to research it in ancient myths made it comparatively easy to isolate, besides giving an air of credibility to people studying it. The big names in the study of the hero monomyth form are Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Vogler, although several other people have also contributed significant thoughts to the theory of this plot type. Anyway if you happen to be writing a hero monomyth type story you are really in luck because so much has been written about it and the theory material is popular and easy to find.

What is a Hero Monomyth? This is a story of a hero protagonist (often marked by destiny in some way), a villain antagonist, generally the hero is journeying, and there is usually one or more foozles involved. (A foozle is an object, usually magical, which has a special role in the plot as the only object which can solve some normally unsolvable problem, cause characters to take normally uncharacteristic actions, or cause massive destruction. For this reason they are also known as "plot coupons".) Many videogames are hero monomyths, because the format works very well with a player who is traveling through the game world fighting a series of opponents.

Monster-slaying is a traditional activity of a "solar hero", one of the standard types of main character in a monomyth. In mythology a solar hero makes the world safe for civilization by destroying monsters and villains, and sometimes removing magic (or a dangerous technology in a science fiction version) as a whole from the world. Beowulf is a typical example of a solar hero. The other type of standard main character is the "lunar hero" - he's the one who goes to an unearthly world and brings something back, usually to benefit civilization. Two typical examples of this are Orpheus' journey to Hades to retrieve the soul of his wife, and several cultures' myths about the theft of fire (or light in the form of the sun or moon) from a god. (Fetch quest, anyone?)

These two types can be combined, for example perhaps a fantasy world has suddenly started to suffer from demons, so the hero either is born with a unique anti-demon power or is given a unique anti-demon sword and goes around killing lots of demons. But then it turns out that there is a boss demon sending all the little ones to earth, so the hero has to travel to hell and kill the boss demon. To add extra incentive, maybe the boss or one of his top minions kidnapped someone the hero needs to rescue or stole something the hero needs to retrieve. Then after killing the boss the hero may find some sort of treasure to bring back with him. (Although in video games, epic loot for the hero's own use tends to be substituted for the traditional treasure intended to benefit the hero's kingdom or all mankind. Collecting, i.e. set completion, can even take over as a main theme, for example in a Pokemon-like game, or the WoW mount which is obtained as a reward for having obtained 100 other mounts.)

The main plot points of a hero monomyth are:

- Often the hero's birth is special in some way or there is a prophecy that someone will defeat the villain.

- Some disaster caused by the villain will demonstrate that the world is out of balance.

- The hero (typically a teenage boy) will find or be given a message or object associated with the idea of fighting the villain. 'Finding something' may take the form of an inner awakening of a magical power. 'An object' may be something alive like a magical sidekick. 'A message' may appear in reverse form, such as someone forbidding the hero to go anywhere near the villain or think about fighting him. This is the call to adventure.

- Some disaster caused by the villain will spur the hero into accepting the call to adventure after all.

- The hero crosses a threshold into a supernatural world.

- Optionally the hero's personality or ability is tested by a guardian. If he passes the hero may be rewarded with a new foozle or ability, or simply allowed to continue on his journey. If he fails he may have to rethink things until he figure out how to succeed (learning a lesson) or he may be cursed and then either have to figure out how to remove the curse or learn from the suffering caused by the curse or both. A story may nave one or several such tests.

- The villain is angered or alarmed by the hero's progress and takes another action to either tempt the hero to quit, or pressure the hero into quitting (or just kill him). The hero may waver, but eventually this will backfire and result in hardening the hero's resolve instead.

- Now the villain gets desperate and the big guns come out. If the villain was behaving with honor before, he may now show his true nature by fighting dirty. The hero usually gets physically or emotionally injured, and doubts that it is possible to win. This is the black moment. But a lesson learned earlier or the hero's inner strength will prevail against seemingly impossible odds and get him back on track. (Also this may clearly state a moral of the story.)

- The villain is disconcerted by the hero's success in an apparently impossible situation. The hero finally faces the villain head-on and they fight, and of course the hero wins. Often the reason the villain loses is the moral stated in the previous plot point. The villain may die swearing his opposition to the moral, may die finding enlightenment by accepting the moral, or may survive by gaining a new appreciation for the moral. In some cases the hero may die as a sacrifice to pay the cost of his victory.

- Assuming the hero doesn't die, he gets to return to civilization and gets treasure including social rewards such as a wife or an award of rank. He may additionally gain historical fame for bringing a new resource or technology to civilization. Sometimes he goes around teaching whatever moral he learned to others.

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Re: Reason to separating notes from the synopsis

If the synopsis is written before the actual text, the synopsis is most likely the first and only representation of what the audience may see. Therefore, detaching notes on backstory, timeline, character, world building from the synopsis allows you to see your story as they would. It makes it easier to tell whether they would understand the story if you only provide the information on the synopsis.

[Edited by - Wai on April 28, 2010 12:42:53 PM]

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Original post by Wai
Re: Reason to separating notes from the synopsis

If the synopsis is written before the actual text, the synopsis is most likely the first and only representation of what the audience may see. Therefore, detaching notes on backstory, timeline, character, world building from the synopsis allows you to see your story as they would. It makes it easier to tell whether they would understand the story if you only provide the information on the synopsis.

The problem with this is that the audience mostly would not understand the story without the notes. Also, I was intending that the notes be included in the finished story. But if the intent is not to include the information in the story, then yes it probably doesn't belong in the synopsis.

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