How to Use Your Three Act Structure to Write Your Synopsis

The plot diagram I work with using post it notes.

As I work on my mystery, I’ve realized that at some point I will have to write a synopsis.  In all reality, while I don’t love writing a synopsis, it isn’t the worst thing every and it just got easier.  Last week, I read this post on using your story beats to create a 1 page synopsis.

The way I was taught to use the term, a beat is a unit of action.  Think about the 3 Little Pigs.

  1. Wolf knocks on door and calls, “Little pig, little pig let me in.”
  2. The pig replies, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”
  3. The wolf responds, “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.
  4. Wolf huffs.
  5. Wolf puffs.
  6. Wolf blows said house down.
  7. Pigs run.

As you can see, that’s going to be a lot of beats. How can that possibly make it easier to write a one page synopsis?

Read the original post and you’ll realize that what she calls a beat, many of us were taught to call a turning point.  That greatly reduces the number of things you have to include.

Act 1.

  • The hook that pulls your reader into the story.
  • The inciting incident that sets the story in motion.
  • The event that forces the protagonist to take action.
  • The turning point or tipping point during whicn your character crosses the point of no return.

Act 2.

  • Character’s reaction to the tipping point.
  • First pinch point or stress point.  The antagonist does something that narrows the protagonist’s options.  And see what this does?  It brings the antagonist into the synopsis!
  • Turning point at the middle of the story. This is where your protagonist quits reacting and takes charge.  This is marked by a strong action of some kind.
  • Another stress or point point.
  • The dark moment.  This leads to the climax and we wonder if all is lost.

Act 3:

  • Your character regroups and makes a new plan.
  • Climax – the big battle scene/final confrontation/maximum drama.
  • Wrap up.

Come up with these points for your novel and you will find that your synopsis will be much easier to write.  Try doing it for a favorite book or movie and see how quickly it comes together.


Backstory: Keeping It Where It Belongs

Write a chapter.  Write a second chapter and realize that something in the first one needs to be changed.  Rewrite the first one.

Tired of this particular process and the limited progress that went along with it, I decided to outline the beats in my cozy before writing any more.  And that’s when I made a discovery.

I hadn’t started at the beginning. The three chapters I had so carefully crafted were all backstory.

This discovery came about when I paged through Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. I was having troubles figuring out some of my beats and needed to see how another mystery had done it.  Knowing that this would be a problem, Brody had included the outlines of several titles in her book.

As I looked at the outline in front of me, I saw where in the book the murder or other crime needs to occur.  What?  I was already to that point in my outline.  Then I realized that my outline started much earlier in the character’s story than it should have.   I had included all of the backstory that made her who she is at the outset of my mystery.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, backstory is what takes place before your story.  It might be the events that make your character judgmental or wishy-washy.  It could be why he isn’t trusting or why she doesn’t want to go to college with her friends.

As the author, you need to know all of this.  But your reader doesn’t want all that baggage even if they need to know some of it.  Instead of starting with it, you need to dole it out a bit at a time, fact by fact, throughout the story you’ve chosen to tell.

How?  Some people do it through flashbacks but flashbacks slow things down and can be confusing.

Other times you can do it by just dropping in a fact here and there.  “X is why I came back to town/missed prom/don’t have a license.” Backstory is like confetti – you should scatter these facts with a light hand because no one wants a face full all at once.

Which is why I am starting my new outline much, much later in the story.


Research and Outlining: Which Comes First?

This week I started my next project for Red Line.  Next Thursday I have to turn in Chapter 1, an outline, and a bibliography.

One of my students wanted to know if I research or outline first.  This is one of those the chicken or the egg kinds of questions.  In most cases I work on them simultaneously.

When Redline asked me to write about the Ancient Maya, I was faced with a topic that was far too broad for a single book.  I could write about their cities, how they lived, their religion or their science.  I could write about how we have learned about them and what we don’t know.  The theories about why their civilization declined are numerous.  Mayan technology, mathematics and agriculture are all worthy topics and far to vast to squeeze into one volume.

Fortunately, Abdo had given me a list of things to include so that the book would parallel the others in the series.  I used this list as a rough outline.  With that in hand, I started my research.  I needed the topics in the outline because simply searching on the Maya was too broad. With that kind of search the material I found wouldn’t be focused or detailed enough.  But with the topics I could find what I needed to know to create a detailed outline.

So the process goes like this:

Read the spec sheet.

Do a small amount of research, looking for topics that would make good chapters.

Create a rough outline, possible just with the chapter titles.

Research and outline chapter 1.  Research and outline chapter 2.  Etc.

Is this method perfect?  Not really. Sometimes I’ll discover information that isn’t in the outline but should be so I have to combine chapters. Sometimes a topic turns out to be too narrow to carry a chapter.  But this is when I want to find these things out. Editors generally don’t consider your outline to be the final word but it does let them know what you consider important and which topics you plan to cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some research to do and an outline to smooth out.



5 Minutes a Day: Outlining Your Story

Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I pants.  Admittedly, I pants most often on short pieces, especially nonfiction.  Longer nonfiction has an outline but it isn’t very complete.  I am definitely outlining my current fiction project because it is a mystery and an adult mystery at that.  There is no way I’ll manage to keep it all straight without an outline.

So how do you go about creating an outline in 5 minutes?  You don’t.  Instead you work on it in 5 minute increments.  It isn’t as hard as you might think.  I just completed #2 below and I already have 15 scenes.

  1. Do you have the turning points or big moments in your story?  Jot those down in chronological order.
  2. Do your turning points have complications?  Add those in at the appropriate points in time.
  3. What about things that happened before your story? The essential bits of character back story.  This can help you determine why one character doesn’t trust another and, essential in a mystery, the reasons for all the mistrust. Go ahead and jot those scenes down too in the order in which they happened.  No, they may not all become scenes but that’s okay.  Keep track of them along with your scenes.
  4. Take a good luck at your pivotal scenes.  What is likely to happen before this?  After this?  Write it down.
  5. In my case, I’m working on a mystery.  I need to add the murders events in as well as they fit within the larger timelines.  No, I may not write any of them up, but I need to keep track of them within the larger structure.
  6. Starting from the top, see where you have too great a gap between one scene and the next.  Ask yourself questions to fill them in.

Admittedly I have a love/hate relationship with outlining fiction.  I worry that it will destroy any spontaneity but I also have to acknowledge that especially with a mystery this is essential.



Storyboard: One Way to Outline Your Picture Book

When you write a picture book, you need to make certain you have enough story.  The problem is that there has to be enough to stretch over 32 pages.  And this has to be 32 pages with zing.  They can’t be scant.  They can’t be meaningless.  They have to matter.

I’ve been noodling over a new idea for just over a month now.  I know it is a story that matters.  How do I know?  People are arguing about it.  Everyone is certain that their answer is Right with a capital R.  But I have to make sure this story that matters can fit inside and fill the inside of a picture book.

One of the best ways to tell is to storyboard it.  For those of you who have never worked up a storyboard, it is a worksheet, or board, that allows you to mock-up a picture book so that you can see the entire thing on one page.  I don’t like working on something as small as a sheet of printer paper.  My storyboard is a piece of cardboard that was used to cover a mirror in shipment.

Why bother with a storyboard?  The great thing about using a story board is that I can see right away if I have enough scenes.  Will my idea fill a whole picture book?

So I start by writing a sentence or a phrase for each scene.  I do this on post it notes.  Once I have my post-it scenes in hand, I set about arranging them on the various spreads.

Some people prefer to do this on a worksheet.  I like this post-it note approach because I can re-arrange things as needed. To an extent, the order of my scenes are sequential.  This happened on X date.  This followed on Y date.  And this was on Z. But that just covers the historic spreads.  The modern ones are going to take some fiddling.  Post-its and my giant board let me move, cut apart, put on one two-page spread, and just generally fiddle.

When I’m done, I have an outline and I’m ready to write.  Not that the writing will necessarily be easy but at least I know when I’m done I’ll have a story that is long enough, and worth of, a picture book.



chrysanthemum-991625_1920What is the saying about the well laid plans of mice and men?  I actually looked it up and found this in the American Heritage Dictionary. 

“No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. The saying is adapted from a line in “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

Usually when I approach NaNo, it is all a bit slap dash.  I’ve just come off a deadline and I dash in at the last moment and manage to rough about 8000 words before I lose my way in the story.

This time I actually planned.  I scrapbooked the novel, creating pages for my characters and my setting.  I didn’t get as far as I would have liked on material culture but I got a bit of that done as well.

Just as I was sitting down to work on my outline, I get hit with a rewrite.  It was due two days into NaNo.  No worries.  I could do that and then get the outline done.

Are you laughing yet?

By the time I got the rewrite done, I was a teeny-weeny little bit toasted.  As in completely fried.

Then we had three deaths — a family friend, a friend’s mom, and a friend’s wife.  I guess you could say that at this point I am deep-fried.

For two days I tried to work on my novel.  I managed to outline about 25% of it and wrote two and a half pages.  That’s something like 700 words which is much less than the 1600+ words you are supposed to write each day.  And it is really bad.  Not so bad that I’m going to throw it away because it helped me pull somethings together but it is only a wee bit of what I need to accomplish given that I should be about 15,000 words in.

The killer is that I really want to work on the book.  But right now?  I just don’t have the energy to do it.

Instead of writing, I’m doing some more research on the material culture.  I’ll get more information on how they do things — cooking and the like.  I’m also working on my outline using the Plot Whisperer to nudge me along.  I know I can do it but I am equally certain that I just can’t do it right now.

Does that make me a NaNo failure?  I don’t much care for the world failure.  I think I’ll just consider myself a late bloomer, like a mum.



It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Or the Joys of Three Act Structure

basil-rathbone-402601_1280As I get ready for NaNoWriMo, the last step that I’m confronted with is creating an outline.  There are several different types of outlines that you can create.  Each one is “the only way to do it,” according to one group of writers or another.  Here are two of the most common.

Scene outline.  Some writers outline their novel scene by scene.  This means coming up with a list of events that take place in your story.  It gives some writers the safety net they need.  For others it saps their creativity.

Plot Point Structure.   Other writers create more of a plot point structure.  This is similar to a scene list but makes sure that certain key events are present and accounted for in the most effective order.  This is what I’m creating for Iron Mountain.  The plot points that I need to note are:

Act 1.  (Roughly 25% of the story)

  • The hook:  Pull your reader into the story.  Get the reader to start asking questions.
  • Inciting Event: This event sets the story in motion and leads to …
  • The Key Event: The event that forces the protagonist to take action.
  • 1st Plot Point:  This is either at the end of Act 1 or beginning of Act 2.  There is a change of surroundings.  It is a personal turning point for the protagonist.  From here there is no turning back.  The main character is driven out of her comfort zone and into the world of the story. Some people call this the “Tipping Point.”

Act 2.  (Roughly 50% of the story)

  • Strong Reaction:  The character has a strong response to the 1st plot point.
  • First Pinch point:  Sometimes called a “Stress point.”  This is where the antagonist makes his reach and power known.  He does something that narrows the protagonist’s choices.
  • Turning Point/Second Plot Point:  This marks the midpoint of the novel.  It should be about halfway through the story. There should be a change of direction for the characters.  This is where your protagonist quits reacting and starts acting.  She takes charge.
  • Strong Action: This new direction and stepping out on the part of the Protagonist is expressed through a strong action.
  • Second Pinch Point:  Sometimes called a stress point.  Once again the antagonist makes his power known and he again narrows the protagonist’s choices.
  • Third Plot Point.  This comes at the end of the 2nd act, beginning of the 3rd act.  Things are set forward leading to the climax.  This is a low point for the protagonist.  Perhaps she has been confronted again by the antagonist and lost.  There could be a betrayal.  Her confidence is shaken.

Act 3:  This is where the pace picks up as we move toward the climax.  (Roughly 25% of the story)

  • Plan.  Your character has taken some time to regroup and now has a new plan of action.
  • Climatic Moment.  This point is the highest point in the drama of the story.  It fulfills the dramatic promise.
  • Wrap up.  Wait!  Things aren’t over yet.  Here’s where the reader finds out what happens next for your characters.

Some people start with the plot point outline and then move into a scene outline.  That’s what I’m going to try to do.  Wish me luck!


The Kiss Principle

KISSLast week, I was working on an outline for a project I’m doing for Red Line.  This is my first job for them so I wasn’t sure how much detail to include.  I knew I needed the chapter titles and the broad points of each chapter.  But what about the supporting points and the sidebars?  By the time I worked it all in, my chapter outline was about a page long.

Then the editor sent out a sample.  Seriously?  This was it?

  • Chapter title.
  • Main points.
  • Sidebars.

Some of the mainpoints and sidebars were two lines long but most of them were one.

While some of you might have been frustrated by this (oh, the wasted time!), I was elated.  I had been working in way too much detail.  This was so much easier.  I could do this easy-peasy.

Every time I’ve had to make an outline for a project, I come back to the KISS principle.  Keep it short and simple.  The outline is something that an editor wants to be able to quickly skim.  Skim not read.  This may take some practice to do without yet another reminder.



Your Opening Scene

Always say start where action is.  Start where change happens.  We’ve heard that advice time and time again and it’s entirely surprising.  Have you ever read a manuscript where the writers starts way too early, poking and plodding through paragraph after paragraph of yawn inducing back story?  Heck, we’ve all written a few manuscripts like that when we’re being honest with ourselves.

Unfortunately, I tend to err in the other direction.  You want action?  I’ll give you action.  Me?  I tend to plunk the reader down in the middle of something BIG.

That’s what I tried to do with Rat Race and my critique group just shook their heads.  “Too confusing.  We need to know this, but we need to know X first.”

So I’d write a new first chapter, squeezing it in before the original.

Nope.  Still starting too late in the story.

Fortunately, I was able to diagnose by problem when I sat down with Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer Workbook and the original Plot Whisper book.  Check out Saturday’s post at the Muffin to find out how using these two books got the ball rolling.


To Outline or Not to Outline

The outline (yes, the entire outline) for my YA novel in progress

I’ve had several people ask me lately about outlining my work.  Do I or do I not outline a manuscript before I start writing?

My answer was the same as for the question about which comes first, plot or character.  “Sometimes.”

When I write nonfiction, the order of events follows some (hopefully) logical sequence.  I follow a process from start to finish.  I relate historic events chronologically.  I write up the life cycle of a particular animal.   I almost never outline my nonfiction although, given how difficult the rewrite process can be, it might not be a bad idea.

When I write fiction, I usually outline.  If it is a picture book, I get out my story board and write a sentence or two for each scene and lay it out on the board.  For a novel, I make a list of the events that have to happen, the scenes that are already in my mind.

For a longer fiction project, I don’t always have the whole plot in place before I start writing.  I need to play with the project a bit to get to know my characters.  At times like this, I start with a partial outline, write, learn more about my main character, meet a few secondary characters and then stop writing for a bit while I add to my plot.  That’s where I am right now on my new YA.  My POV character and the romantic lead each have a sidekick so I’ve added two characters.  Now I need to strengthen the plot.

That’s what works for me right now.  Tomorrow, it may be completely different!