1st Drafts / Writing

Novel in a Nutshell

If you’re new to “Summer’s Ultimate Novel,” click here to read the first post (listing ideas in a notebook), here to read the second post (choosing the right idea), or here to read the third (themes and one-line synopsis of your novel). 

So how did it go this week with the themes and one-liners? It’s not too late to share your examples or ask questions—that’s why I’m here! Contact me via comment or email.

Assuming that you came up with a one-line synopsis, this week you get to write a one-paragraph synopsis of your novel. Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why do I need another synopsis when I already have the one-line hook?” The one-liner is a marketing tool that catches attention; the one-paragrapher is a marketing tool that either seals the deal or breaks it. 

Think about it: what do you do when you’re browsing in a bookstore? If you’re like me, you see an interesting cover and then pick it up to read the back. Okay, sometimes the back cover is used for an excerpt instead, or to list all the great reviews. In that case, turn to the inside cover flap. It may be two paragraphs instead of one, but it’s still a short synopsis. The same is true for movies—the back of the DVD box will have a summary of the movie. What happens if the synopsis doesn’t interest you? Then you return the book/movie to the shelf and look for something else. That synopsis is like advertising to sell the product. 

Sometimes the publishing house will write that book synopsis so the author doesn’t have to. That doesn’t let you off the hook. If you’re a writer trying to get an agent, you need a one-paragraph synopsis to put into your query letter. An agent’s decision to either reject the query or ask for the manuscript is based largely on that synopsis—which is why you need a good one. 

Even if you never query an agent or try to publish your book, the one-paragraph synopsis can still help you. Think of it as a very short outline for your novel.This outlining synopsis is a bit different than a marketing synopsis, but it helps you better understand your novel. 

It’s easier to write the one-paragrapher if you understand acts. You know how plays are divided into acts? Well, novels are too. The acts aren’t usually noted within the book (though some are labeled as “Parts”), but many authors have them in mind while writing. 

Some writers use three acts, others use four. Author Stacia Kane wrote an informative post about the three-act structure and how she divides her story into roughly even thirds. In the comments of that same post, author Jeri Smith-Ready explained how she uses a three-act structure in a different way. She ends Act 1 after three chapters (which is approximately one-fourth of the book instead of one-third), but her Act 2 still ends around the two-thirds mark. 

When I wrote THE RIVER’S EDGE, I used Jeri’s method. She described the end of the third chapter as “Crossing the Threshold—the point of no return.” So for me, it made sense to introduce all the important characters and basic clues in the first three chapters, then end Act 1 with a major complication. The character makes a decision, and there’s no going back from the chosen path. 

Now that you’re briefed on acts, you’re ready to write the synopsis. Randy Ingermanson, creator of the Snowflake Method of outlining, describes how to write a one-paragraph synopsis. Let me try to summarize it …

Sentence 1:  Backdrop and story setup. 
Sentence 2:  First disaster, which occurs at the end of Act 1. This complication might be caused by external circumstances. 
Sentence 3:  Second disaster, which occurs at the midpoint of Act 2. This disaster happens when the protagonist tries to fix the first problem but instead makes it worse.
Sentence 4:  Third disaster, which occurs at the end of Act 2. Just when you think life can’t get any worse for the protag, it does. 
Sentence 5:  Briefly describes Act 3. Speculate—will the protag win or fail? Make sure you know the ending, but don’t reveal it if you’re trying to hook a reader. 

I need a good example of a one-paragrapher. I’d offer my own, but then you’d know the outline of my unpublished novels! So instead, I’ll try to make up a synopsis for the first Harry Potter book. This isn’t the summary you’ll find on the back of the book (because mine reveals the secret of the Sorcerer’s Stone), but it outlines the novel’s main plot. I might have the acts completely wrong, but bear with me …

All Harry Potter knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, until Hagrid arrives and tells him he’s actually a famous wizard. As Hagrid prepares Harry to start at the magical school of Hogwarts, Harry gets a glimpse of a secret package. He thinks of the package again when he and his friends discover a three-headed dog guarding a trap door. They eventually realize the package is the Sorcerer’s Stone—a source of immortality—and someone wants to steal it from Hogwarts. Can Harry and his friends reach the Stone before the thief does?

Sentence One gives a quick background of Harry and sets up the story. Then Harry goes to Diagon Alley in Chapter Five (these chapters are shorter than some YA or adult novels, which is why it doesn’t follow the third-chapter rule I mentioned above. But Harry sees the package on page 76, which is about one-fourth into the book—perfect for ending Act 1). Once Harry learns that secret, he can’t turn his back on the mystery. He finds the trapdoor on page 162—the book’s approximate midpoint. On page 227, the end of Act 2, Harry thinks Snape is trying to steal the Stone. The rest of the book is Act 3, in which Harry tries to rescue the Stone. Notice how the first disaster is caused by external circumstances; Harry has no control over Hagrid’s actions. The second disaster happens when Harry is breaking rules to roam the school at night, and the third disaster occurs when Harry eavesdrops on Snape. By his own choices and actions, Harry is dragged into the mystery until he’s too entangled to walk away from the Stone. 

There you have it … five sentences to summarize an entire novel. If you can figure out how to write a one-paragraph synopsis, you’ll know how to pace your novel from beginning to end—three exciting disasters spread throughout! But like I said last week:  do not get discouraged if you struggle with these synopses. Writing a synopsis is a different trick than writing a novel. Some people never write synopses beforehand, and they may never consciously map out their acts. I just want to encourage you to think of your novel’s “big picture.” If you know what happens in Acts 2 & 3, you’ll be less likely to get stuck on Act 1. 

Try writing a one-paragraph synopsis this week. If nothing else, hopefully the brainstorming will give you more ideas for your story (don’t forget to write down everything in your notebook). Feel free to post your paragraphs or ask questions! Next Saturday we’ll talk about settings and how to start researching. Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

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7 thoughts on “Novel in a Nutshell

  1. It strikes me as funny that I paid hundreds of dollars last year to attend a conference which gave me similar information as you are giving for free here.

    WHAT was I thinking?

  2. *blushes* You flatter me too much! I could never take the place of a conference … but I love you for saying so! *hugs*

    Does this mean you’re writing a novel this summer? 🙂

  3. Pingback: Where We Gonna Go From Here? « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

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