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NaNo Prep: Taking Pre-Planning Your Story a Step (or Seven) Further with an Outline and/or Synopsis

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In addition to the blurbs and one-page synopsis that you can do in preparation for a marathon writing session like NaNoWriMo, you can go ahead and try writing out a full synopsis. A full synopsis can be anywhere from five to ten pages, but the general rule of thumb one synopsis page to every 15–20k words of your novel (so a 100k-word novel will melt down to a 5–7 page [double-spaced] synopsis).

Partial seven story beat structure for Turnabout's Fair Play with columns for both romance storylines.

Partial seven story beat structure for Turnabout’s Fair Play with columns for both romance storylines.

The easiest way to write a full synopsis—as well as to have a good structure for planning your story—is to use some kind of outline structure. If you’re writing genre fiction, this is a little easier, because there are certain markers, certain landmarks your story needs to hit in order to meet reader (and publisher) expectations.

The structure I’ve found that works best for me is the Seven Story Beat structure from Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit. Don’t let the title fool you—as you’ll see below, this structure applies well to just about any story.

1. The Setup/Hook
“A scene or sequence identifying the exterior and/or interior conflict (i.e., unfulfilled desire), the “what’s wrong with this picture” implied in the protagonist’s (and/or antagonist’s) current status quo” (Mernit 110).

This is the introductory scene of your story and your synopsis—the opening hook and introduction of your main characters. As with all opening scenes, this is the establishment of that character’s story goal, as well as hinting at the main conflict for the entire novel. In a synopsis, you should focus on the one or two main characters (possibly as many as three if they’re closely tied together) who are involved in the main plot of the story.

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)

After the death of her husband in Lancaster County in 1984, young Amish woman RACHEL LAPP decides to take her eight-year-old son, SAMUEL, into the outside world for the first time on a trip to Baltimore, Maryland, to visit her sister. Traveling by train, Samuel is amazed to see people different from him and sights such as a hot air balloon.

2. The Inciting Incident
“The Inciting Incident brings the main characters together and into conflict; an inventive but credible contrivance, often amusing, which in some way sets the tone for the action to come” (Mernit 111).

Beat 2 should follow Beat 1 in close succession—after all, it’s the Inciting Incident that gets the story rolling. It’s the story hook that keeps us reading.

You’re probably more aware of Inciting Incidents than you think. Whenever you start talking with your friends about any type of storyline—a book, a movie, or even an episode of your favorite television show—inevitably someone will start analyzing what led up to it. What was it that put everything in motion? What’s the first important thing that really pulls you into the story? In other words, what was the Inciting Incident?

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)

When waiting to change trains at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Samuel uses the men’s room. As he does so, he accidentally witnesses the brutal murder of a police officer.

3. The First Turning Point
“Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 1, this is a new development that raises story stakes and clearly defines the protagonist’s goal; it is most successful when it sets characters at cross-purposes and/or their inner emotions at odds with the goal” (Mernit 112).

The First Turning Point of your story is the event that happens to set your characters at cross-purposes with each other, to complicate things, to start building to the ultimate conflict yet to come.

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)

CAPTAIN JOHN BOOK takes Samuel and his mother to the police station and has Samuel study pictures of convicts and a police line-up to identify the murderer, but Samuel does not see a match. However, after wandering around the police station, Samuel sees a newspaper clipping with a picture of Lieutenant James McFee and identifies him as the man he saw at the train station.

4. The Midpoint/Raising the Stakes
“A situation that irrevocably binds the protagonist with the antagonist and has further implications for the outcome of the relationship” (Mernit 113).

This is taking the conflict you’ve just raised at the turning point and continuing to raise the stakes: throwing as many twists and turns and conflicts as you can at the characters to keep them from resolving the plot question as long as possible. (In the example, conflicts that raise the stakes are bold/red—obviously, you wouldn’t do that in a formal synopsis.)

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)

Book reports to his superior officer, Chief Paul Schaeffer, saying that McFee was responsible for a drug raid where expensive chemicals used to make amphetamines were discovered, but never reported to the police department. The police officer who was murdered was investigating the disappearance of these chemicals which, if sold, would make McFee a very wealthy man, hence he was murdered to ensure silence. Schaeffer advises Book to keep the case secret so they can work out how to move forward with it.

Later, when Book returns home, he encounters McFee in a parking garage. McFee tries to shoot him but Book draws his own gun and, after a fierce shoot-out, McFee flees the scene—but not before Book is wounded. Book realizes that since he only told Chief Schaeffer about McFee’s corruption, then Schaeffer must be corrupt, too. Book then phones his partner and tells him to remove all the police files that include the Lapps’ details, and that he is going into hiding. Schaeffer, McFee, and Fergie (the second murderer) start their hunt of Book.

Book returns Rachel and Samuel to their farm in Lancaster County, but as he is about to leave, he passes out from loss of blood as a result of McFee’s gunshot. He cannot go to any mainstream doctors or hospitals, as they will make reports, and McFee will find and kill him and the Lapps. Rachel’s father-in-law, who also lives at the farm, reluctantly agrees to shelter Book in their home for the sake of his grandson and daughter-in-law’s safety. Eli recruits an Amish apothecary to treat Book’s gunshot wound using traditional Amish methods.

Book stays with the Amish for some time, learning their ways, helping out around the farm, and becoming part of Rachel’s and Samuel’s lives—and begins to fall in love with Rachel along the way, which creates friction between Book and Daniel, the Amish man who wants to marry Rachel.

5. Swivel: Second Turning Point
“Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 2, stakes reach their highest point as the story goal’s importance jeopardizes the protagonist’s chance to succeed at his/her state goal—or vice versa—and his/her goal shifts” (Mernit 115)

The Second Turning Point is basically the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s almost “Inciting Incident Part II”—an event that leads the characters to make a turning-point decision that will lead to the climax of the story.

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)

After he’s been with the Amish for a while, Book goes into town to telephone his partner; but he is informed that his partner has been killed [incident]. Enraged, Book calls Chief Schaeffer’s private residence (where he cannot be traced), openly calling out Schaeffer on his corruption and stating that he is through with hiding and is going to hunt down Schaeffer and McFee instead. While returning to Eli’s farm, Daniel is harassed by local punks who defile Amish culture and pacifism. Book then confronts the tormentors, and when one of them harasses him, he strikes back and breaks the nose of one of the punks [turning-point decision]. The fight becomes the talk of the town, and makes its way to the local sheriff.

6. The Dark Moment/Crisis
“Wherein the consequences of the swivel decision yield disaster; generally, the humiliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever” (Mernit 115).

This is when the conflict rises to such a crescendo that it seems insurmountable.

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)

Book tells Rachel he is leaving the next day. However, before Book gets a chance to leave the farm, Fergie, McFee, and Schaeffer arrive and threaten Rachel and her father-in-law. Book, who is in the barn with Samuel, orders Samuel to run to the neighbors’ for safety. Using Samuel’s lessons about the grain silo, Book tricks Fergie into entering the silo, then releases a cascade of corn which suffocates Fergie. Book grabs Fergie’s shotgun, then uses it to shoot McFee dead. Meanwhile, Samuel rings the bell on his farm, alerting their Amish neighbors that help is needed. When a crazed Schaeffer threatens to kill Rachel, Book surrenders to him.

7. Resolution
“A reconciliation that reaffirms the primal importance of the story goal; an ending that provides satisfaction to the reader” (Mernit 116)

The Resolution, as the name of this beat implies, is the denouement and ending of the story—“the marryin’ and the buryin’” as Mark Twain called it. It is the resolution of the Dark Moment/Crisis and the resolution of the relationship between your characters. In your book, this can be anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few pages to a chapter. So in your synopsis, it can be anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph or two. Note: It is very important to include the entirety of the resolution in a formal synopsis.

Example from the movie Witness: (adapted from Wikipedia)
However, at that moment, a large number of Amish arrive at the Lapp farm in response to the bell. Schaeffer, realizing he cannot murder everyone, knows he has lost and allows Book to disarm him. The local police arrive, and Schaeffer is taken away.

Afterwards, as Book prepares to leave, he shares a quiet moment with Samuel, then exchanges a silent, loving gaze with Rachel. Eli bids Book goodbye on his return to Philadelphia by saying, “You take care out there among them English,” showing his acceptance of Book as one of the community. As Book drives away from the Lapp farm, he passes Daniel, who has presumably come to resume his courtship of Rachel.

When I put all of these examples together in a separate document, it comes out to more than one single-spaced page, so it would need to be edited down for one of those, but, for a full synopsis could include so much more of the story.

No, you don’t have to write a synopsis like this or work with an outline like this—but when you get stuck around the 30,000-word mark, having even just one or two scene ideas for each of these seven points can help in regaining momentum and continuing to write.


Work Cited:

Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000.

“Witness (1985 film).” (2013, October 22). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2013, from

  1. stuart5wakefield permalink
    Wednesday, October 23, 2013 6:50 am

    My outline is currently running at 3 pages and circa 1500 words (single spaced). I think I still have more to add but it’s going to be invaluable when I start writing. I used to be a ‘pantster’ and frequently ran out of ideas. No more. Now I know exactly what I’m going to be writing when I sit down to write. If the characters surprise me along the way, then so much the better, but I think I’ll be able to pull them back into line.

    Is it November yet?


    • Wednesday, October 23, 2013 9:28 am

      LOL–we’re almost there. Just eight more days!

      That’s the other benefit to committing time to pre-planning the story—the building excitement and motivation to actually start writing it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. tashadriver permalink
    Wednesday, October 23, 2013 10:29 am

    Reblogged this on Write for Your Life! and commented:
    Another Nano prep guide:
    This one (from involves writing a more detailed synopsis or outline and discusses the seven beat plot progression.


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