Monday, March 28, 2011

Plotting (Part 2): Developing an Outline and Synopsis

After I've spent some time collecting ideas for a novel, my next big step is to organize them into an outline. The more novels I write, the more I learn about my writing process. I've learned that I need an outline to keep me on track. The more thinking I can do up front, the better the novel flows when I'm writing. And the easier it is to revise the novel later.

How do I make my outline? I've tried various methods, including The Snowflake method and the Nine-Step method. For my newest project, I'm following the structure I've read about in Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. Here's what I've created:

Visual Storyboard. Using a piece of cardboard and my ideas on sticky notes (or pieces of paper with sticky tack), I can see the general structure for my novel.

Summary of Plot Elements. I made a simple 3-column table in a word document with the headings: Plot Element, Example, My Story.

Plot elements are things like: Opening Image, Thematic Statement, Set Up, Catalyst, Debate, Break into Act II, etc. They're all listed on Blake Synder's beat sheet.

Example helps me remember what I'm trying to do with each plot element. The examples came from Laura Pauling's excellent plot analysis of the movie How to Train Your Dragon. If you want to learn more about plot structure, I highly recommend you read Laura's plotting posts.

My Story is for the events and ideas I'm developing. As I try to figure out how my ideas related to each plot element, I discover how I want to start and end the story, where I have missing pieces, and roughly where key events will go. I don't spell everything out. For example, I have vague sentences like: They do some wilderness stuff, finding water, building a fire, etc. This leaves me with room to discover while I'm writing. At the same time, I have enough direction so that I'll have a coherent story.

Having used several different methods for outlining, I like the "Save the Cat" method the best. Once I figured out all the plot elements, I had everything I needed to write a story synopsis.

Synopsis. This is a key part of my planning process. It gives me a sense of the whole story and motivates me to get writing! I also use it to create my one-sentence pitch and, later, my query letter. When I copy the My Story column from my table as text only, I have the bare bones of the synopsis already done. I just have to make it sound a little better.


  1. I do write my synopsis beforehand. It definitely c hanges but it helps to have some direction! Thanks for linking to my post!

  2. I've been experimenting with outlining and I think I may be hooked. I'll check that Nine-Step Method as I haven't seen it before. I have Save the Cat on order--hope it gets here soon!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  3. Very well thought out! Save the Cat is my favorite so far as well.

  4. Laura, my synopsis often changes quite a lot, but it's a good starting point.

    Angela, I do think that outlining can make revising easier.

    Elle, I never used Save the Cat before, but it gave me a totally different perspective.

  5. This sounds very interesting. I have just ordered Save The Cat (judging by the comments here, I think you should be getting a kick-back!) and I'm going to give it a try!

  6. LOL, Susanna! Actually, I've heard Save The Cat mentioned on quite a few blogs lately. I hope you find it useful.


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