At first glance the concept of writing a short story seems to be simple. You have a story to tell. You sit down, pull up an empty page, and write it. So, why is it that so many people get as far as sitting down and opening up a new document, but then freeze up? So many times an individual knows what they want to say, but when it comes to actually putting it down in words it gets stuck somewhere between the their imagination and the fingers hovering over the keyboard. So, how do you get from here (an idea percolating in your head) to there (a completed story)? One of the best ways to do this is to start by creating a synopsis.
Begin With a Synopsis
A synopsis is a short summary of the story that you are writing. In order to create a working synopsis, it is necessary to ask yourself some questions to help you get all of your proverbial ducks in a row. The questions can be summed up with the following five phrases: Somebody. Somewhere. Wants Something. But. So.
The Five Questions
1). Somebody: Who is the main character of your story? Describe them in detail. What do they look like? How do they talk? What do they wear? What are their good qualities? What are their bad qualities? Yes, I know that is more than one question – but all of them come under the umbrella of the “somebody” who is your main character. The more detailed your character is in your mind, the more real they will come across in your writing.
Example: John is 18 years old. He is tall and lanky with sandy brown hair and freckles to match. He has a slight backwoods drawl to his speech and mostly wears jeans and t shirts, though he will wear a button down shirt for special occasions. He has just graduated from high school. He is polite and thoughtful but tends to be forgetful and is sometimes so caught up in his own world that he forgets what it is that he is supposed to be doing.
2). Somewhere: Where does your story take place? Describe the exact setting for your story. Is it a real location? A made up place? When does the story take place? What is the weather like? What is the scenery like? Are there Mountains? Oceans? Prairies? The more detailed you can be, the more real your story will seem to yourself and your readers.
Example: My story takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, we will call it Hoboke. The town consists of just a few buildings, a town hall, a police station and a handful of stores, an elementary and high school and is nestled by a river that flows between rolling hills and while you can see mountains in the distance, they are a good ways away. The year is 1955. It is summertime and hot. The sidewalks are so hot they will burn your bare feet if you aren’t careful.
3). Wants Something: Every story is about someone that wants something. It can be as simple as that they are looking for directions on how to get to a specific location, or something as complex as that they are looking for world domination. Explain your characters goal or wish in the story including why it is that they want this particular thing.
Example: John has one great desire in life, and that is to go to travel and see the world. He would settle for seeing the United States, because he knows that there is more to life than one little Pennsylvania town, and he has to figure out a way to get what he wants.
4). But: If a person who wants something was able to get what they wanted with no problem, then there is not much of a story. A good story includes obstacles; challenges; hurdles that have to be overcome in order to achieve the goal. The BUT section is where you explain the problem in your story. Why is your character unable to meet their goal. What kinds of obstacles/challenges are they facing? Why is this a problem for them?
Example: In order to achieve his goal of seeing the world, John has to figure out a way to get what he wants. He does not have the grades or the money to attend college. He does not feel that he has the temperament to join the military. He has no real marketable skills that would land him a job if he were simply to get up and move to a new location.
5). So: Explain in detail how your character overcomes the problem/obstacle/challenge that they are facing. Be as detailed as possible.
Example: After weighing his options, John decides that he is going to use his life savings to simply take a visit the closest large city to see if there are any other options. After arriving in Philadelphia, PA by bus he gets robbed of all of his money and decides to hitchhike home. He is picked up by a 21 year old steel mill heiress who has just come in to her money and is off on a road trip adventure to California before she goes decides what she is going to do with her life and she asks him to come with her partly, because she likes him, partly because she wants to tick off her parents. They have many adventures on the trip and end up falling for each other by the time they reach the west coast where they decide to elope, much to the girl’s parents’ chagrin. While he didn’t actively attempt to overcome his obstacles to seeing more of the world, John inadvertently overcomes them by taking the step to go to the big town and go with the girl when she asks him to accompany her.
Using Your Synopsis
Once you have answered the five questions above, you will see that, if you put them all together, you have a synopsis of your story. It’s that easy!
Once you have linked the answers to the five questions together, you can use your synopsis to refer to as you are writing your story so that your characters, settings, conflicts and resolutions stay consistent throughout the telling. In fact, the longer your story is, the more important having a synopsis is so that you won’t forget the details.