That's because we don't normally think plot. We have an idea for a story (immigrant boy founds family dynasty in Nevada wilderness) and a random assortment of mental images (encounter with a grizzly bear, wild ride to rescue son from kidnappers, gorgeous blonde swimming nude in icy stream, showdown with eastern gangsters wanting land for casino). How do we get from these fragments to a coherent plot?
Writing a letter to yourself may help, but first try this: Take a stack of 3x5 cards and jot down an image or scene on each one, just in the order the ideas occur to you. It might look something like this:
Jesse rides into town, confronts Caleb Black about his fraudulent mining-shares deal. Caleb denies everything, threatens to shoot Jesse if he talks about it.When you have five or ten or twenty such cards, lay them out in the sequence you envisage for the story. You certainly don't have a card for each scene in the novel, but you have the scenes that your subconscious seems to want to deal with. You also have numerous gaps. How do you get Jesse from his silver mine in Nevada to the deck of the Titanic? How does Caleb get in touch with the three hired killers from San Francisco? How does Jesse's grandson respond to the first offer from the gangster syndicate that wants to build a casino on the site of the old mine?
Now you turn your thoughts to just those gaps, and new ideas occur to you. That means more cards. Maybe some of the new ideas are better than the original ones, so some of the old cards go in the trash. New characters emerge to fulfill functions in the story. Your research into Nevada history suggests still more scenes which might go into this or that part of the novel; still more cards go into your growing deck.
The story may eventually end up as a series of flashbacks, but for now stick to straight chronological order. Maybe the whole story occurs during a three-hour siege of a secluded mansion; maybe it stretches across a century and a continent. Whatever the ``real time'' of your story, you may see that the cards clump naturally around certain periods of the plot and you see no need for events to fill in the gaps. That's fine; maybe you've found the natural divisions between chapters or sections of the story.
Keep asking yourself why. Why Nevada, why mining, why a gorgeous naked blonde? Don't keep a scene in your storyboard unless you can justify it as a way to dramatize a character's personality, to move the story ahead, to lend verisimilitude. If you absolutely must have a scene in which Jesse's true love Sophia goes skinnydipping in an icy creek and then nearly drowns, what good will the scene do for the story?
Once you have at least the main sequence of events clearly mapped out on your cards, you can begin to transfer them to a more manageable synopsis or outline. More about that in a later posting.
- Nothing should happen at random. Every element in a story should have significance, whether for verisimilitude, symbolism, or the intended climax. Names, places, actions and events should all be purposeful. To test the significance of an element, ask: Why this place and not another? Why this name and not another? Why this action, this speech, and not others--or none at all? The answers should be: To persuade the reader of the story's plausibility; to convey a message about the theme of the story; to prepare the reader for the climax so that it seems both plausible and in keeping with the theme.
- Plot stems from character under adversity. A mild-mannered person cannot achieve his goals by an out-of-character action like a violent assault, unless we have prepared the reader for it by revealing a glimpse of some suppressed aspect of his personality that can be plausibly released by stress. And the stress itself must also be plausible, given the circumstances of the story.
- Each character has an urgent personal agenda. Too much is at stake to abandon that agenda without good reason. We may not share the character's urgency, but we should be able to see why he cares so much about what he's doing. A character who acts without real motivation is by definition melodramatic, doing outrageous things for the sake of the thrill it gives the reader--not because it makes sense for the character to do so.
- The plot of a story is the synthesis of the plots of its individual characters. Each character has a personal agenda, modified by conflict or concordance with the agendas of others. The villain doesn't get everything his way, any more than the hero does; each keeps thwarting the other, who must then improvise under pressure. If the hero is moving northwest, and the villain is moving northeast, the plot carries them both more or less due north--at least until one or the other gains some advantage.
- The plot ``begins'' long before the story. The story itself should begin at the latest possible moment before the climax, at a point when events take a decisive and irreversible turn. We may learn later, through flashbacks, exposition, or inference, about events occurring before the beginning of the story.
- Foreshadow all important elements. The first part of a story is a kind of prophecy; the second part fulfills the prophecy. Any important character, location, object should be foreshadowed early in the story. The deus ex machina is unacceptable; you can't pull a rabbit out of your hat to rescue your hero. But you can't telegraph your punch either--your readers don't want to see what's coming, especially if your characters seem too dumb to see it. The trick is to put the plot element into your story without making the reader excessively aware of its importance. Chance and coincidence, in particular, require careful preparation if they are going to influence the plot.
- Keep in mind the kind of story you're telling. Any story is about the relationship of an individual to society. A comic story describes an isolated individual achieving social integration either by being accepted into an existing society or by forming his own. This integration is often symbolized by a wedding or feast. A tragic story describes an integrated individual who becomes isolated; death is simply a symbol of this isolation. The plot should keep us in some degree of suspense about what kind of story we're reading. Even if we know it's a comedy, the precise nature of the comic climax should come as a surprise. If we know the hero is doomed, his downfall should stem from a factor we know about but have not given sufficient weight to.
- Ironic plots subvert their surface meanings. Here, an ordinarily desirable goal appears very unattractive to us: the hero marries, but chooses the wrong girl and turns his story into a tragedy. Or the hero may die, but gains some improvement in social acceptance as a result--by becoming a martyr or social savior, for example.
- The hero must eventually take charge of events. In any plot the hero is passive for a time, reacting to events. At some point he must try to take charge. This is the counterthrust, when the story goes into high gear. In some cases we may have a series of thrusts and counterthrusts; in the opening stages of the plot, the counterthrust helps define the hero's character and puts him in position for more serious conflicts (and counterthrusts) later in the story. You could even say that every scene presents the hero with a problem; his response is his counterthrust. In the larger structure of the plot, the counterthrust often comes after the hero's original plan of action has failed; he has learned some hard lessons and now he will apply them as he approaches the climax of the story.
- Plot dramatizes character. If all literature is the story of the quest for identity, then plot is the roadmap of that quest. Every event, every response, should reveal (to us if not to them) some aspect of the characters' identities. Plot elements dramatize characters' identities by providing opportunities to be brave or cowardly, stupid or brilliant, generous or mean. These opportunities come in the form of severe stress, appropriate to the kind of story you're telling. A plot element used for its own sake--a fistfight, a sexual encounter, an ominous warning--is a needless burden to the story if it does not illuminate the characters involved. Conversely, the reader will not believe any character trait that you have not dramatized through a plot device.
Some synopses cover the whole story, while others supplement a portion of completed manuscript and presuppose the reader's familiarity with that portion. If you have broken your novel into chapters, that's a useful way to divide your synopsis also. You may find, however, that what you thought would fit into one chapter will expand into two or three.
The major element of the synopsis, and sometimes the only element, is the narrative.
- Usually in present tense:
On a fine spring day in 1923, Lucy Williams applies for a job working for a
- Names and describes major characters:
Lucy's new boss is Donald Matthews, a handsome young businessman scarcely
older than Lucy, but with an unsavory reputation as a rumored bootlegger.
- Summarizes major events in the story:
Hurrying home through the storm, Lucy bumps into Kenneth Holwood, Donald's
former partner. Holwood seems deranged, and hints at some terrible secret in
- Indicates the story's point of view:
Lucy mails the package despite her qualms; she wonders what it might
contain. Meanwhile, in a shabby hotel room across town, Holwood meticulously
plans the death of Donald Matthews. (This shows us that the story's point of
view is third-person omniscient; we will skip from one viewpoint to another as
- Contains virtually no dialogue: Donald invites Lucy to dinner at a notorious speakeasy, saying she'll enjoy herself more than she thinks she will.
A background section sometimes precedes the synopsis itself, especially if the story's context requires some explanation. (This seems especially true of science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, where the plot may hinge on unfamiliar story elements.) Otherwise, such explanation simply crops up where required in the synopsis.
How long should a synopsis be? I've sold some novels with just two or three pages. Other writers may write forty or fifty pages of outline. If your purpose is to interest an editor before the novel is completed, and you expect the total ms. to run to 90,000 to 120,000 words, a synopsis of four to ten doublespaced pages should be adequate. After all, you're trying to tempt the editor by showing her a brief sample, giving her grounds for a decision without a long investment in reading time.
Should you stick to your synopsis? Not necessarily. It's there to help you and your editor, not to dictate the whole story. Like the itinerary of a foreign tour, it should give you a sense of direction and purpose while leaving you free to explore interesting byways; it should also give you a quick return to the main road if the byway turns into a dead end.