Plot Elements Matter

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton, the structure on which the story is built. Plot can be defined as the series of events that move the story forward; the network of highways the characters follow to reach their goals.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every plot element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each plot element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to another? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the plot element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot element are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but they must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path were straight and level with smooth sailing, the plot would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

When you begin working on a new story, do you develop your plot or characters first? Do you believe that a book can be primarily “plot driven” or “character driven”?

8+

The Power of the Shadow Story

ShadowsI was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and a new writer came up to me, said she had a great concept and had used one of my books to outline the plot. She was now 30k words into the novel and scared. She said it felt like she was looking out at sea from a tiny raft. There was this looonnng way to go in Act II, but now she wasn’t sure she had enough plot material to make it.

“Ah,” I said like a liposuction surgeon, “the sagging middle. No worries. I’m here to help!”

We sat and talked a bit about signpost scenes and she understood all that. But it was clear she needed more “story stuff” in her plans.

So I suggested she write the shadow story. This is the part of the novel many writers never think about, yet it’s one of the most powerful plotting techniques there is. It will take you places you’d never find if you only danced around in the light.

Simply put, the shadow story is what is taking place away from the scene you are writing. It’s what the other characters are doing “off screen.” By giving thought to the shadows, even minimally, you greatly expand your store of plot material.

A few tips:

Start With The Antagonist

The most important shadow is the opposition character. Someone once said a good plot is two dogs and one bone. So while your Lead is gnawing the bone in one scene, your antagonist (off screen) is laying plans to snatch that bone away. Or setting in motion a scheme to kill the lead dog. Or messing with the dogs who are helping the lead dog.

Or maybe he’s overusing canine metaphors.

Whatever it is, by getting into the head of the opposition character, who is somewhere else, you will come up with all sorts of ideas for plot complications. It’s almost automatic. Fresh scenes, mysteries, obstacles will spring up from your writer’s mind. Your Act II problems will begin to melt away.

Supporting Characters

You also have a cast of supporting characters, major and minor, who all have lives and plans and motives of their own. Here you will find the fodder for those plot twists every reader loves. Like when a seeming ally turns out to be a betrayer. Or an enemy becomes a friend. Why would that happen? Let their shadow stories tell you.

Shadows Inside the Lead

You can also delve into the shadows and secrets of your Lead. Maybe you’ve done this already, by giving your Lead a backstory and answering key questions about her life (education, hopes, fears, lost loves, etc.)

But every now and then, in the middle of the writing, pause to come up with something going on inside the Lead that she is not even aware of. Try what I call “the opposite exercise”: The Lead, in a scene, has a specific want or need (if she doesn’t, you need to get her one fast, or cut that scene!) Now, pause and ask: what if your Lead wanted something the exact opposite of this want or need? What would that be? List some possibilities. Choose one of those. Ask: Why would she want that? How could it mess with her head?

Then look for ways to manifest this inner shadow in some of your scenes.

Or imagine your Lead doing something that is the opposite of what the reader or, more importantly, you would expect in that scene. What sort of shadow (secret) made her do that?

Just by asking these sorts of questions, you deepen your Lead and add interesting crosscurrents to the plot.

That’s the power of the shadow story.

Practical Tools

There are two excellent ways to keep track of your shadow story material.

First, Scrivener. I know some people are intimidated by all the bells and whistles of this program. My advice is to use it for a few simple things (mapping your scenes on the corkboard; keeping track of your cast of characters) and then learn other stuff at your own pace, and only if you want to. At such a reasonable price, Scrivener is cost effective for whatever you use it for.

Here is a screen shot of a scene being written (click to enlarge). The page with the text is just like a Word document. Scrivener lets you dedicate a document to one scene or chapter.

Mount Hermon 1 Notice on the bottom right there’s a box labeled “Document Notes.” This is place where you can jot down anything relating to the scene on the left. Perfect for shadow story. You can be as brief or as detailed as you like.

The other method is to use the Comments function in Word. Just insert a comment which gives the shadow material:

Mount Hermon 2

Remember, all sorts of good stuff happens in the shadows. Go there, snoop around, then come back to the light and finish your novel.

 

35+

Freshening Up Your Scooby Doo Ending

 

Scooby doo 3

 

True story: some college students were touring a county coroner’s office. The tour included visit to an autopsy room, where a coroner and a diener were in the process of examining the body of a deceased unfortunate. The diener, with the students looking on, turned the corpse over and exclaimed, “Rut row!” The reason for this utterance was that the corpse had a tattoo of Scooby Doo inked into one cheek of his posterior. Gallows humor, indeed.

Scooby Doo is firmly ensconced in the American culture. The plot of each cartoon episode is very similar, with a crime occurring, Scooby and his pals investigating, and the villain of the piece being unmasked, literally, at the end. I think that I scooby doo2scooby doo1       first heard this type of climax referenced as a “Scooby Doo” ending during the second of the three climaxes to the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It has been a vehicle used in mystery novels long before that. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, except that 1) it sometimes doesn’t work and 2) sometimes it needs a little work. I ran across an example of the former several months ago while reading a thriller that was one of the many nephews to The Da Vinci Code wherein the protagonist’s adversary was running around killing people while wearing a tribal mask and attempting to obtain an instrument of antiquity which would permit him to destroy the universe. The protagonist got the mask off of the evildoer near the end and the book ended. “Rut row!” The book was okay, but the ending was a total disappointment.

season of fearThat brings us to a book I read this week in which the author uses the Scooby Doo ending to great effect by taking the story a step or two beyond it. The author is the morbidly underappreciated Brian Freeman and the book is Season of Fear, the second and latest of the Cab Bolton novels. (Please note: it’s not quite a spoiler, but there’s a general revelation ahead. Read the book regardless). The premise is fairly straightforward. Ten years ago a Florida gubernatorial candidate was assassinated by a masked gunman, throwing the election into chaos. A suspect was identified, tried, convicted, and jailed. In the present, the candidate’s widow is running for the same seat when she receives a threatening note which purports to be from the same assassin. Indeed, he eventually turns up, and his identity is ultimately revealed in a grand unmasking. But wait. Freeman, after giving the reader enough action to fill two books and expertly presenting a complex but easy to follow plot, gives the reader more to chew on. Things don’t end with the revelation of the identity of the doer; instead, Freeman moves us a couple of more steps forward, revealing a potential unexpected mover and shaker who was a couple of steps ahead of everyone, including Bolton. This has the double-barreled effect of making the climax much more interesting and setting up a potential adversarial setting for Cab Bolton in a future novel. Nice work.

Again, Scooby Doo endings are okay. They’re fine. But if your particular novel in waiting has one, and seems to lack pizazz, don’t just take the doer’s mask off, or reveal their identity, or whatever. Take things a step further just as the curtain is going down, and reveal who is pulling the cord, and perhaps yanking the chain. It may be a character that was present throughout your book, or someone entirely new, or…well, you might even want to create a character and work your way backwards with them. But stay with the mask, and go beyond it.

So what say you? Have you read anything recently where the ending really surprised you, unmasking revelations or otherwise notwithstanding? Do you like Scooby Doo endings, in your own work or the work of others? Or can you do without them?

Oh, lest I forget… SCOOBY-DOO and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and © Hanna-Barbera. Rowwrr!

8+

I Am a Recovering Plot Pantser–There, I Said it

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


book-woman-reading-free-ms



On Monday, guest Steven James had an excellent post on “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” I loved reading his thoughts on trusting the fluidity of the process and chasing after rabbit trails. I can relate to this as a writer. On Tues, our esteemed TKZ contributor, P. J. Parrish, expressed an argument in favor of more structure in her subtle post, “Sometimes You Gotta Suck It Up & Write The Darn Outline” in which she wrote about her love/hate relationship with outlining. These arguments got me thinking about my own process that has evolved over the years.


I started out as a total “pantser,” meaning I came up with a vague notion of characters or a story idea, then started writing to see where it would go. In general, I found this to be liberating and it unleashed my inner story teller, but I found (over time) that I ran out of gas about half way through and hit a wall. I always finished the project. I believe it’s important to finish what you start, if for no other reason than to learn how to get out of tight corners. There’s a true feeling of accomplishment to salvage a story that seemed to be headed for a dead end, and through practice, I learned what pitfalls to avoid. But as a writer under contract, I realized it would be a better use of my time to do some advance thinking on structure, rather than hoisting a shovel to shore up plot holes.


So I found a hybrid method that satisfied my “pantser” free spirit yet provided enough structure to serve as a guidepost – my lighthouse in the fog. I posted a more detailed presentation on TKZ HERE, but I wanted to highlight what this method does for me now.


SAWG YA Presentation - 3-Act Screenplay Structure Diagram 091612


NOTE: A word of caution on any detailed plotting method: A plot structure can become rigid and restrictive if it inhibits the author’s exploration into a new plot twist or character motivation. As Steven James said, some rabbit trails should be explored. For me, this is the fun of storytelling – to uncover a hidden gem of creativity.


When I’m first developing an idea, I break it down into turning points (the 3-Act Screenplay Structure “W”) to get a general notion on structure. It helps me simplify the plotting/outline method into 5 turning points (the W). I can handle 5 things. I use this to write proposals and brainstorm with my crit group for their plots or mine. Rather than getting bogged down by character backstory or other details, I focus on “big ticket” plot movements to provide some substance.


The transition scenes between the turning points are still a mystery that can be explored, but in a synopsis, I can provide enough “meat to the bone” for an editor to get the idea and pair it up with a multi-chapter writing sample. Once I start writing the rest of the book, I can still explore rabbit holes and surprise character motivation twists to embellish the framework I’ve started with. I get my proposal out to my agent (with writing sample, synopsis and pitch) and keep working on current material. While I’m waiting to hear on a sale, I can set the material aside because I have a synopsis to act as a guidepost when I can get back to it. This method has also helped me plot out a whole series, to build onto the storylines (over a series of novels) and ramp up the stakes.


Focusing on turning points from the beginning (before I commit to the writing) has inspired me to spin major plot twists and “play with” the options I should consider. I can reach for complete 180 spins in a “what if” way. As an example of 180 degree turns, I’ve been inspired by the TV show CSI Vegas this season. Many of the episodes are so well written, they make a 180 turn at every commercial break and hit their marks with great twists. I’ve enjoyed this season so much that I record and go back over the plot by taking notes, to see how the writers developed the story. That’s what really good turning points can do for a book/TV show. They pull the reader/viewer into the story and challenge them to figure out where the plot is going. Who dunnit?


So I’m a reformed pantser who has found a way to keep a sense of free spirit, yet write with a framework when I’m ready to go. I feel more efficient, but I still have the flexibility to explore rabbit trails and trust my natural story telling ability.


I’d like to hear from you: How do you handle rabbit trails? Do you put all the work up front in the form of a detailed outline, or do you prefer a lighter touch to “discover” something as you write? Are you a hybrid plotter/outliner too?

0

Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, it would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

0

Discovering Story

Nancy J. Cohen

Part of the creative process is Discovery. I’m in this phase now, which is when the beginning of a plot swirls in my head. I have a title for my next mystery, so I have to work the murder around it. Thus I’ve made an appointment for a facial. I know, research can be tough but someone’s got to do it. And my Bad Hair Day series is centered around a beauty salon.

Often I’ll start the plotting process with the victim. As shown in my book, Writing the Cozy Mystery, I draw a circle in the center of a paper and put the victim’s name inside. Around that go spokes like on a wheel for each of the suspects. Then I connect the spokes together so it becomes more like a spider’s web, where the suspects relate to each other in some manner.

For now, I know my victim’s basic identity. Her job is what gets her into trouble, and so the suspects develop from among her business associates. Who might want her dead and why leads me to motives. At this point, preliminary research is in order. I need to look up the world surrounding her business and learn more about it.

beauty pageant

But that’s not all. I am driven to acquire new knowledge about a subject for each book. What will it be for this one? What issue interests me, or what news article have I filed among my clippings that I might want to pursue? This factor is what propels me forward and underlies the plot. It hasn’t come to me yet for this story.

My victim is co-sponsor of a beauty pageant. I search online and fine headlines like “Top 10 Beauty Pageant Scandals.” Bingo! Before looking these over, I realize I have a problem. Most pageants likely take place over a weekend. How can I get this group of people to stay in the Fort Lauderdale area for a week or two so my hairdresser sleuth, hired to do the contestants’ hairstyles, can ferret out clues?

I’ll deal with that problem later. Meanwhile, I look at the scandals online regarding beauty shows, and nothing strikes me in terms of issues I’d want to pursue. The problems encountered don’t seem worthy of murder. And do I really want to write a whodunit variation of Miss Congeniality?


Miss Congeniality

Hey, what if I do a fashion show instead of a beauty pageant? My last Bad Hair Day mystery, Peril by Ponytail, takes place in October. I could set the new story in December. I’ve done Thanksgiving in Dead Roots but never Hanukah or Christmas. So how about a charity holiday ball with a fashion show? Using a local designer would keep the action in town, and I’ve already done the preliminary research by going backstage at a designer showcase. This will give me the personal angle of Marla and Dalton dealing with the holidays while also picking a charity whose cause I can support. If Marla has a connection to the charitable organization through her friends or relatives, this would give her an added incentive to get involved in solving the murder.

I like this idea. It’s starting to get me excited, whether or not it pans out. At least, it’s a start in the right direction.

So what advice do I have for you based on this experience? When you begin to think about the next story, let ideas flow through your brain. Pick the one that excites you and do your preliminary research. If you find some meaty material, go with it. If not, let the idea float away but keep the story in your mind. Your subconscious will present the next idea. Or thumb through your files and see if one of your clippings or news pieces stimulates a train of thought.

Do you start story development with an issue, a character, or a setting?

0

A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between

@jamesscottbell

The philosopher Groucho Marx once said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
True that, but inside of your WIP, in the very center, dwells not the darkness but the light.
I’ve been studying, thinking about, practicing and (eventually) teaching the craft of fiction since that day in 1988 when I decided to become a writer. I love popping the hood, taking apart the engine, looking at all the moving parts. I love hanging with other writers and talking about the craft.
My bookshelves are stuffed with craft books. I have five big binders of old Writer’s Digestmagazines, underlined and indexed. There’s not an approach on “how to write” that I haven’t come across at one time or another.
I’ve written novels using all three main systems: plotting (with a comprehensive outline), pantsing (just start and go!), and tweening (a mix of each).
I’ve written by knowing the beginning (and that’s all), and by starting at the end (and working backward). Usually, it’s been a combination.
Every writer has a favorite approach, of course. And you’ll hear passionate arguments for them. No sooner has someone extolled the value of outlines than a rebellious soul starts beating the drum for knowing nothing at all!
Well, I’m pleased to tell you, people of Earth, that I come in peace. In fact, I believe I have come up with a unique method of approach that will please all sides of the great debate.
That method is to write your novel from the middle.
That’s what I said. Stay with me.
Let me go back to a post I did some time ago. I discovered that the true “midpoint” of a great novel or film is not a scene, but a moment within a scene. I call it the “mirror moment.” So powerful did this idea seem that I began to explore it as the foundation for all my full-length fiction. I then developed a method to get the most out of it. Not only that, I found that this approach is one that can be used by plotters, pantsers and ‘tweeners. It can be used at the very start, or at any step along the way.
You can use it as the basis of an outline, or you can pants your way along for ten thousand words and then let it guide you to an organic and powerful plot.
I started teaching this in my workshops, with wonderful results. Which is why I had to write a book about it.
Within this book I explain how to take the mirror moment and apply what I call The Golden Triangle, which looks like this:
The Golden Triangle will help any author find the unique and dynamic heart of their novel. In fact, just thinking about The Golden Triangle will mine riches hidden in your narrative. It will reveal, like the sun shining through the clouds, the real story you’re trying to tell––even if you don’t realize it.                                                                                             
The book can be found here:
My philosophy of study for 25 years has been that any writing book is worth it if I can find even one thing that helps me. That’s why I have so many books on the subject, and continue to read Writer’s Digest every month.
And that’s my pledge regarding this book. You will find something that helps you.
We’ve had books on outlining and books on writing without a net.
We’ve had books on knowing your beginning, and books on knowing your ending.
But this is the first one that counsels: Write your novel from the middle!
Thank you for this infomercial time, Zoners, and for your very gracious support.

So…do you consider yourself a plotter, a pantser, or a tweener? What particular challenges have you found with your approach? 
0

Story Logic

Nancy J. Cohen

The other night, I watched two recorded TV action adventure shows that gave me pause over their story logic. If I had written these sequences into a book, editors everywhere would have turned down my submission. What was wrong? Flaws in story logic jumped out at me. Whether the average viewer noticed, I have no idea. But as a storyteller myself, I couldn’t help but make note of them.

detective

In Show Number One, two female characters were attempting to steal a precious artifact from a security-tight room. They got around the fingerprint analysis in a plausible manner and entered the vault-like space where the artifact was kept under a glass case and surrounded by an electrified cage. Various obstacles were placed between the door and the cage. But wait—one of these woman was an acrobat specifically chosen for this impossible task. So she vaults up to a series of parallel bars conveniently strung across the room and swings from one to the next, while her pal waits by the door. Finally, our acrobat propels herself over a gap at the top of the electrified cage. Inside, she swipes the artifact. Guards are moments away from discovering them. Commercial break.

When we return, the thieves are outside with their booty. Okay, how did they get from Point A to Point B? When we saw our acrobat in action, she used her two hands to swing and jump from one overhead bar to the next. How could she jump at all holding the heavy, bulky artifact that looked as though it would require those same two hands to hold it? Illogical. Nor did she have her friend present again to give her a boost up.

My editor would have caught me on that one. My solution? Have her wear a backpack so she could stuff the heavy tome inside for the return trip. Give her a tensile line to shoot to the overhead bar from inside the cage. Or have her rappel down from a ceiling vent like in countless heist movies. Don’t just have the two women suddenly appear in the clear with their prize with no explanation as to how they got away and avoided the guards.

Story Number Two proceeded well until the very end, when a bad guy got his comeuppance. One of the main characters called him on his cell phone as he’s in the bathtub with a beautiful woman. The caller mentions how his turn has come right before his companion stabs him. How did this character know exactly when he’d be in the bathtub with the assassin? If it were my story, I’d have video cameras tracking him. Or the assassin could have sent the caller a signal. It was too much of a coincidence that this person called right then, although the dramatic moment worked to provide a sense of justice.

What does this prove? TV writers might get away with flaws in their story logic, but it won’t work for us when we’re under an editor’s eagle eye.

eye

Make sure your story flows logically and smoothly, covering all bases. You don’t want to give your readers cause to put down your book with a derisive snort.

Do you recall any movies or TV shows where the credibility stretched?

0

Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

He’s flummoxed because these aren’t his hands.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t been flummoxed (word of the day courtesy of James Scott Bell) by the task of writing a first synopsis. Do they get any easier to write? Not for me. Each story idea presents a unique essence that must be distilled into a short brief. Some authors sell books on proposal (with or without a writing sample), or they use the synopsis to be an initial outline of the story idea (a guide post), or an effective synopsis brief can be a part of a solid query letter or made into a quick pitch to an editor or agent. However you use a synopsis, I thought I’d share what has worked for me.

 

Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

 

1.) The Basics – Generally a synopsis is 5-7 pages long, double spaced with one-inch margins. Be sure to include your contact information on the first page and I would recommend adding a header on every page (in case an editor or agent drops your proposal and the pages get out of order). My headers have my name, title of the book, genre, word count, and page number (on far right). I often have a tag line that I list at the top, before the synopsis brief. If you are represented by an agent, I would list that near your contact information. A professional presentation will make you stand out in a slush pile.

   

2.) Writing a synopsis shouldn’t be about defining the rules of the game. It should be about why you’d want to PLAY it. Give the editor or agent or reader a sense of your voice and the color of the world you will build. Think of a synopsis as a lure, an enticement for them to want more. Rules are boring. Tell me why the game will be really good, or fun or scary.

   

3.) Whether there is quirky humor or a dark suspenseful undertone to your book, the synopsis should reflect these elements and not merely be a detailed “who does what where.” If your synopsis is boring, chances are any editor or agent will think your book will be lackluster, too. Give them something shiny to grab at.

   

4.) Pitch your book with a high-level synopsis brief at the top of your proposal. This pitch should read like a TV log line – a condensed 1-3 sentences about the main elements of your story – character highpoints, conflict, emotion, what’s at stake. No need for specific character names that will only be a distraction to what your book is about. If you get this short pitch right (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”), you can embed it into a query letter or use it on your website for a short teaser. An editor can use this short descriptive pitch of your book to her house and the committee that decides which book to buy.

   

EXAMPLE:

[Part of this pitch is omitted for confidentiality. I REALLY wish I could share it, but I can’t.]

A depressed and aging widow gets a second wind when she pays a young handyman for services rendered on her unusual Bucket List, in an uncommon “coming of age” story.

   

5.) After the synopsis brief or the pitch, it’s time to introduce your characters. The first time a new name appears in your synopsis, capitalize their full name to highlight who the players will be. A writing sample will introduce your character to the editor or agent in a different way, but I recommend a brief summary of why  each of your main characters have earned their right to be a star in your story. Highlight who they are, what they want, and why they can’t have it. What will their struggle be? What’s at stake for them?

   

EXAMPLE:

LILLIAN OVERSTREET has flipped the channel on her rerun life and given up. She’s convinced nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Her husband’s dead, her only daughter treats her like a doormat, and old age is creeping up on her like bad granny panties and has made her invisible. Her only reason to leave the house is her bowling team of widows – The Ball Busters. She’s mired in a chronic case of depression that has seeped into every aspect of her existence, until her daughter GRACE OVERSTREET-THORNDYKE hires “eye candy” to do the renovation of the family home. [This is only the basic set up and does not include the conflict, black moment, and ending highlights.]

 

6.) Not every aspect of your plot needs to be spelled out, ad nauseam. If there are five main suspects or key secondary characters, give the highlights of who they are and why they earned the right to be in your book and why they could be a game changer. This works for other genres, not just crime fiction. If there are characters who stand in the way of your hero/heroine, showcase who they are and why they are an obstacle.

 

EXAMPLES (Secondary Characters with sense of color/humor):

 

VINNIE DELVECCHIO is the only widower on the Ball Busters team. In the small town of Why, Texas, he runs a Deli where Lillian gets her meat. He’s opinionated and brash with a foul mouth. He teases the ladies at the bowling alley by saying, “If you gals ever need someone to slip you the sausage, you come to DelVecchio for quality meat.” Even though his mind is constantly in the gutter, Vinnie knows how to roll a strike, has his own bowling shoes and a hefty pair of designer balls, but he’s only on a “team of broads” for the view.

   

CANDACE and VICTORIA WINDGATE are twin sisters Lillian has known since high school. The sisters kept their maiden name after both their husbands died in the same mysterious boating accident. No one in town knows how the Windgate twins earned their financial independence or how much money they have, but rumors never run out of steam in Why, Texas. Neither of the sisters can bowl worth a damn. They only come to ‘Why Bowl – Family Center & Tanning Spa’ for the cheese fries and beer.

 

7.) The major plot movements should be highlighted so an editor or agent will know your story has meat to the bone. I like to use a 3-Act screenplay method and have posted about it at TKZ before at this LINK – I use a big “W” to remind me of the turning points to include in my synopsis. (Michael Hauge’s “Writing Screenplays That Sell” was the reference book that sparked my interest in structure and it has helped me draft my proposals.) The highpoints should show the stakes ramping up and the key turning points in the plot as well as the black moment when all seems lost. If there are twists in the plot (especially surprises), showcase those too.

 

Key Questions for a 3-Act ‘”W” structure:

Act 1 – How does your book start?

Act 1 – What is the point of no return for your character(s)?

Act 1 – What key plot twist will propel your story into the escalation mode of Act 2?

Act 2 – How will you up the stakes?

Act 2 – What is the black moment when all seems lost for your character(s) and how will your character(s) turn it around?

Act 3 – Do I have a plot twist for my readers?

Act 3 – How will your story end and how will you tie up the pieces?

 

8.) The ending should be spelled out. Editors and agents don’t like surprises and want to know how you intend to tie things up. If you are writing a romance, the ending is very important so the editor or agent gets a feel for your take on a romantic full circle. I’ve sold books without full disclosure of who the bad guy is, but generally you should “tell all.”

 

Even if you are an indie author and may never have written a synopsis or included one in a proposal to an editor or agent, it can be a good exercise to understand the essence of your book. A good synopsis will get you thinking about how to create an effective jacket cover description to entice the reader. Writing a synopsis is always a challenge, even if you are good at it, because it boils down your book into a teaser that you hope will lure a reader to buy your book.

 

For the purpose of discussion, tell us what works for you in writing a synopsis. (If you have any tips to add, please share them.) Or share what challenges you’ve had. Let’s talk, people.

 

0

What Makes a Critique Group Work?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Yesterday I attended the first meeting of my new critique group, the first group I’ve been in since 2004. I’ve never had much luck with such groups, probably because I was so new to writing that I didn’t know what to even want from a group. I had even started one and had to drop out, but this time should be different.

There are four of us. Very experienced authors. We have a mix of genres, which could make things interesting. I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in. I’m the only crime fiction and YA writer, but after our meeting and the fun we had brainstorming plots, it became apparent very quickly that genres won’t matter. Storytellers know how to kick start a plot.



Texas Hill Country Bluebonnets

We met in the beautiful hill country of Texas, outside Boerne. Gorgeous drive up to a member’s beautiful home. The scenic drive is enough to start the creative juices flowing. Our hostess had lunch prepared, something easy and way too yummy. She knew the other two authors and had gotten us together after I whined about not finding what I needed in a few of my local (larger) writers’ groups.

We chatted via email on what we’d like to get from our group. At first I wasn’t sure my goals would match up. Initially we had planned on meeting once a month to talk about the business of writing and maybe brainstorm on plot or scene issues, but after the meeting yesterday, we are getting together once a week and it will be much more on craft and pushing each other to be the best we can be.

Yes, we talked promotion and I learned some new things there and we shared contact info for promo things that worked for each of us. We chatted about plotting methods and storyboarding, but when we got to brainstorming a plot, that’s where my mind was blown.

One of our members had purchased three covers from a designer, images that spoke to her. None of us realized what her intentions were until we got into it, but she bought the covers BEFORE even knowing what any of the books would be about. Basically our session turned into a major Flash Fiction exercise of brainstorming what a new series would be about using the cover designs for books that didn’t exist. HA! When you get the right people together, the ideas flow and we had a blast doing it. We set the stage for a world she’d be building from those three covers that would be bigger than three books, something she could grow into. I’d never done that before and I can’t say I would recommend it as a method of plotting, but with the right people, you never know where things will go.

So we set up our basic crit group intentions as follows:

1.) We will endeavor to get together weekly and bring new material from our current projects. The author will read (& hand out copies of the material), but advance copies will be made available to the other members prior to our meeting for “track changes” feedback. This will allow us to focus on the reading.

2.) None of us are very interested in line edits (unless something is glaring), but we want to get feedback on character, plot, scene choice, motivations, etc. (Craft issues)

3.) We will help each other through plot glitches and even do a “getaway retreat” for serious plotting sessions on future books.

4.) We chatted about limiting our reads to a number of pages and/or a time limit per member, but none of us liked the rigidity. So as we get into this, we will be considerate of not overstepping each other’s time and bring what we need to read to keep us on any publisher’s deadline. We will stay until everyone gets what they need.

5.) We’ll rotate the meetings between member’s houses, as long as the commute isn’t too much on any one person. (Two authors are located more conveniently for all of us.)

6.) We are at four members and like that headcount. Whatever we say in the group will be confidential.

So that is a summary of my new crit group. I’m sure we will define things as we go, to suit the needs of the group, but I’d love to hear from you, TKZers.

For discussion purposes, my questions to all of you (who have way more experience than I do with critique groups) are:

1.) What works in your groups? What do you look for in a crit group?

2.) What doesn’t work?

3.) What do you wish you could add to your groups?

http://jordandane.com/YA/crystal-fire.php

Jordan Dane’s Crystal Fire (The Hunted Series with HarlequinTeen) now available for pre-order. Release November 26, 2013.

“The Hunted – Strong characters and a wild and intense story.”
4.5 Stars – Romantic Times Magazine

0