How to Use a Long-Form Synopsis to Plan Your Novel

Image: a cascade of blank Post-It notes are stuck to a desk near a keyboard and marker.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author, editor, and book coach Julie Artz (@julieartz). Download her Tent Pole Scenes Outline template (discussed below).

Years ago, author Jen Malone mentioned in an #mglitchat discussion that she sends out a rough-form synopsis to critique partners during planning stages with the expectation not that they’d heavily critique it, but that they could ask 10–12 “what if” brainstorming questions to get her creative juices flowing. I thought it was a fabulous idea, so my critique group tried it. The results were amazing—this tool is now a permanent part of my toolbox and it can be part of yours too. Here’s how.

Draft your long-form synopsis

Unlike the 500–1000 word synopsis that often goes out to agents or editors with pitch packages, this one is meant to be messy. There’s no set format, length, number of named characters, or any of the things that tend to strike fear in the hearts of writers when creating that other type of synopsis. Instead, think of this type of synopsis as a brainstorming document. It’s a dumping ground for all the things you’d like to work into your new story based on the prewriting you’ve already done on your concept and characters. It covers all the major characters, the main plot and character arcs, but also the subplots, the twists, the unexpected turns.

Step One: Put whatever you know about the story down on paper, but make sure you at least have the following:

  • Age category (MG, YA, adult)
  • Genre
  • Your “what if?” big-picture idea
  • Protagonist’s story goal
  • Antagonist’s story goal
  • Protagonist’s change arc

Step Two: Now it’s time to start to fill in the gaps and shape this into something with some story logic in it. I use the Tent Pole Scenes Outline to start my brainstorming on potential story structure. It’s based on classic fairytale structure (with a dash of Aristotle) for this. Not because I only tell fairytales, or because I think Aristotle’s three-act structure is the only way to tell a story, but because this familiar format helps me tease out my plot from all the various threads floating around in my mind.

  1. Once Upon a Time (ordinary world)
  2. But then…moment everything changed (story problem)
  3. It was awful until (confrontation)…
  4. Then the hero figured it out (climax)…
  5. And they all lived happily ever after (resolution)

Step Three: The first draft is likely to be a total mess. And that’s OK. The point here is to capture everything you know. Now read through what you’ve written and make a list of questions you need to answer before you’re ready to send this to your writing pals for their round of “what if?” questions. Answering those questions might involve looping back to look at craft resources you have on hand around character, plot, world-building, genre and age category. That’s normal—take the time you need to really feel good about this step. Keep taking passes through the document until you’ve addressed everything from steps one and two above.

Your resulting document should be somewhere in the range of 3–7 pages. If you’ve written 20, that’s too long to share with your critique partners. Go back through and pull out extra details and store them elsewhere. You want something high-level enough that you can read it aloud during a critique group without everyone getting lost or starting to scroll Twitter.

Note: It can be tempting to send this to your pals even if you know there are plot holes. Don’t do that! Take care of all the low-hanging fruit on your own so that they can really focus on deepening the work you’ve already done.

Share your long-form synopsis

Once you’ve got a solid working draft, it’s time to share it with your critique partners or a trusted writing friend. Be clear up front that they’re only allowed to ask clarifying questions (for example, “tell me more about what you mean here,” not “don’t you think you need XYZ?”), brainstorming questions that begin with “what if” (What if that cat was really a magical jellyfish? What if that boy character was really a girl? What if the antagonist was also the love interest?), and comp title suggestions (oh, this reminds me of Goonies!).

Getting nitpicky about character names, plot points, or other details is not helpful at this stage. Set expectations up front and only share with people you trust to hold to the guidelines you’ve established. The results are bound to jump-start your creativity and take your story to places it might not have gone without this technique.

Refine your long-form synopsis, an iterative process

The long-form synopsis is a living document you’ll revisit during planning, drafting, and revising your novel. So take the feedback you get up-front and spend some time thinking it over, reading potential comp titles that weren’t on your radar, looking for ways to freshen any tropes that were identified, and otherwise filling in any logic gaps.

If you lean toward the “pantser” end of the planning scale, this may be the only planning document you complete before you start exploratory writing. If you’re more of a planner, you may move from this into a more detailed outline. I fall somewhere in between—I do a lot more detailed character work and world-building preparation before I start drafting, but I don’t go so far as to write a detailed outline. Find the approach that works for you and go with it. It may not be the same from story to story and it certainly won’t be the same from writer to writer. Take what works and add it to your toolbox.

But no matter whether you’re a planner or a pantser, hang on to your long-form synopsis and revisit it periodically as you draft. It can help you track big-picture changes you’ll inevitably make while drafting and help you plan how changes you’ve already made will affect what comes next. Then, when you get that first set of developmental edits, whether it’s from a critique partner, your agent, your book coach, or an eventual editor, you can play with making larger structural changes at the high level via your messy synopsis instead of having to spend months revising the manuscript before you know your changes are going to work. The long-form synopsis is an excellent way to communicate with whoever is on your writing team about your planned changes so that you can get their input without them having to read a full manuscript or decide deep into the process that they don’t like your approach.

Have you ever tried using a long-form synopsis to plan a novel? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this technique in the comments.

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