The One-Line Synopsis: What is it and how to you write one?

Time to expand the concept into a one-line synopsis.

Some people call this tool the logline or the one-liner, and lots of people also call it the premise.  I was one of the premise people until I started digging into the tool and saw that a lot of people also use premise synonymously with theme … and that the dictionary agrees with them.

Whatever you call it, the tool is a way of developing–and presenting–a description of what happens in your story. It’s a summary of the plot.  The tool comes in several sizes and can be as short as a sentence or as long as 20 pages or more.

We’re aiming here to expand our concept into a well-rounded synopsis of a sentence or two.

THE MASTER APPROACHES

I remember going to a conference where a screenwriter (I forget his name) said, complete with movie trailer voice, that the one-liner is:

Hero battles villain in a world.

This is probably my favorite one-liner approach for its simplicity.  But here are some others, ordered from least detailed to most:

For Larry Brooks, your conflict-infused concept is boosted into a one-line synopsis “when you add a character to the mix.”

Laura Whitcomb notes that people like to become the main character when they read, “so just tell us who we are, where we are, and what the problem is.”

For John Truby, the one-liner “is your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of character and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.”

Dwight Swain says the short synopsis is composed of five elements stated in exactly two sentences:  The first sentence establishes (i) the main character, (ii) the situation of trouble forcing the character to act, and (iii) the character’s story objective.  The second sentence is a question (best answered yes or no) and sets forth (iv) the opponent and (v) the disaster/stakes.

For Gary Provost, good one-liners include a world and an active character with a goal.  But Mr. Provost is better known for an expanded plug-and-play synopsis known as the Gary Provost Sentence (even though it’s a paragraph):

Once upon a time, in a world with a problem, something happened to someone, and he decided that he had to pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him and he’d made other plans for his life, he moved forward with the help of a companion, because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he’s earned a change in perspective, which could solve the problem and achieve the goal, and when offered the prize he’d fought so hard for, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

Blake Snyder also offers a couple plug-and-play synopsis templates.  I debated whether to include them, because explaining his terms (he uses the names of plot points as his placeholders) would be a post of its own.  But, I figured I’d include the templates now, and then later, when we get to plot in more depth, Mr. Snyder’s approach will still be here for anyone who wants to circle back.  And of course, if you simply Must. Know. Now. you can always acquaint yourself with Mr. Snyder’s book (recommended).  Anyway, on to his templates…

Basic Snyder Template:
On the verge of a Stasis = Death moment, a flawed protagonist Breaks Into Act Two; but when the Midpoint happens, he must learn the Theme Stated, before All is Lost.

Expanded Snyder Template:
On the verge of a Stasis = Death moment, a flawed protagonist has a Catalyst and Breaks Into Act Two with the B Story; but when the Midpoint happens, he must learn the Theme Stated, before All Is Lost, to defeat (or stop) the flawed antagonist (from getting away with her plan).

COMPONENTS OF A SHORT SYNOPSIS

Based on all of our masters’ approaches, it seems that our short synopsis should include, or at least imply, 7 things:

1. THE WORLD
This includes the “where” and the “when.” But the aspect of the world that we want to highlight in our one-liner is the aspect that is causing and/or complicating the character’s problem.

2. THE CHARACTER
Your character should be described in terms of his flaw (more on this later).  This helps give a sense of the satisfying transformation he’ll undergo as a result of the story.

3. THE INCITING INCIDENT
To put the story into context, a synopsis often includes the event that happens to the character that forces him to take action.  Two of our masters say this is a synopsis requirement.  But if you can set forth the other six components without explicitly stating the inciting incident, I personally think that’s preferable.  It’s fewer words, which is one of the high-concept criteria.  In fact, I often start with the inciting incident to help wrap my head around the one-liner, and then tinker until I find a way to remove it while still clearly stating the other six components.  Often the inciting incident can be converted into an adjective and attached to one of the other components, so that it’s still implicitly included.

4. THE CHARACTER’S MAIN GOAL
Your character needs a clear and observable goal. Even if the character is trying to satisfy inner emotional needs (and he should be), he should still be trying to satisfy those needs by achieving a specific and tangible outer goal.

5. THE MAIN ACTION
As Mr. Truby says, “Your hero will take many actions over the course of the story [to achieve her goal]. But there should be one action that is most important, that unifies every other action the hero takes.”  Include that action in the one-liner.

6. THE PROBLEM
The one-liner should at least give a hint of the antagonistic force that’s complicating or blocking the character’s success in achieving her goal.  This is often, but not always, the same force that caused the problem that forces the character to take action in the first place (see Bonus below).

7. THE STAKES
Why does achieving the goal matter so much to the character?  The one-liner should tell us. (We’ll take a deeper look at stakes in two weeks.)

A MASTER TOOL

To be honest, I feel inadequate to the task of proposing a master one-line synopsis tool, especially since many of the components are best included implicitly, but we’ll try anyway.  How about:

In a World where Inciting Incident and Stakes,
Character takes Action against Problem to get Goal.

Or:

When Inciting Incident, Character joins World
to take Action despite Problem in order to Goal before Stakes.

Or:

Character of Problem World takes Action
to achieve Goal and Stakes to prevent Inciting Incident.

I think any combination of the components (again, stated explicitly or implicitly) will do the trick as long as the whole thing’s clear.

Examples would probably be helpful, yes?  You’re right.  But to keep this post under 2000 words (too late?), I’m going to hold off on made-up examples until Friday’s share-your-work post.  =/   And I’m thinking that will probably become the norm.  =(   But there will be master examples on Wednesday!  =D

CRITERIA FOR A COMPELLING SYNOPSIS

As we did with our concepts, we can develop a ho-hum one-liner into something compelling.  How do we do that?
We do it by choosing the specifics of the seven synopsis components wisely.

When we’re fleshing out our concept into a synopsis (and the story itself), we’re sifting through all sorts of options for character, world, goal, problem…. And each option we choose has the potential to heighten or weaken our story’s interest factor.  And according to Donald Maass, we can assure that the options we choose are raising the interest factor when we pick the options that boost:

INHERENT CONFLICT
This includes a character’s inner conflict and also the outer forces that complicate the problem or prevent its solution. The kind of world your story takes place in and the types of relationships your characters are engaged in (romantic, professional, etc) will both have problems typical of those kinds of situations, even before you add your particular character and his particular problem to the mix.  To heighten conflict, hunt for those internal and external problems as you choose world and relationship details.

ORIGINALITY
To infuse more originality into your story: (i) try viewing your topic from an unexplored viewpoint; (ii) try choosing details that are opposite of the typical or expected details; (iii) try combining story elements in unprecedented ways; (iv) and try pushing beyond the first detail that pops into your head, even if it’s just to be sure that the first idea is indeed the best.

INHERENT EMOTIONAL APPEAL
Upon hearing our one-liner, we want a listener to feel something–a warmth in the heart, a shiver on the skin, a punch in the gut.  If you’ve already got emotional appeal in your concept, make sure you don’t lose it when you expand the concept into a synopsis.  If you don’t have as much emotional oomph in your concept as you’d like, now’s the time to add it.  Hunt for story elements that make you feel something.  Choose plot, character, setting, and problem-complicating details that provide or enhance emotional appeal whenever you can.

PLAUSIBILITY/CREDIBILITY
A story is credible when it rings true and feels like it could happen to anyone.  When you’re making story choices, be aware of any character, plot, or setting elements in your one-liner that strain credibility, and try to choose details that help bolster credibility.  Now I hear some of you wondering What about all those fantasies and vampire novels?  How are those plausible?  Your choices just need to be credible for your world.  We’ll get to worldbuilding more later, but for now, you start making your fantastical world credible by showing its fantastical elements immediately, on the very first page if possible.

ONE-LINER CAUTIONS

Or… reasons to keep tinkering:

Mind the split one-liners.  Mr. Truby warns us against working with a one-liner that has two actions competing against each other for the role of main action.  To illustrate a split one-liner, he uses the example of A man falls in love and fights his brother for control of a winery.  To fix it, he changes the one-liner to Through the love of a good woman, a man defeats his brother for control of a winery. You’ve also got a split one-liner if the one-liner has two characters competing against each other for the role of main character.

Mind the ball.  Mr. Snyder warns us against “hiding the ball.”  Hiding the ball often happens when the really cool part of a story is a secret twist that doesn’t happen until the end, and you don’t mention it in the one-liner because you don’t want to give away the surprise.  Mr. Snyder insists that you get over that and find a way to give a hint of the twist anyway.  It’s better to reveal the compelling twist than to say something vague in its place.

Mind the tone.  Your one-liner shouldn’t be a downer if the story is a comedy, or come off as funny if the story is meant to be serious.

Mind the readability.  The average total stranger should be able to understand the one-liner on a first read (or first listen).  If they don’t, then one of two things is probably happening:  either the story itself is too complicated or the one-liner isn’t worded as clearly as it could be.  (According to the masters, it’s usually the former.)

Mind the vague “details.”  It’s impossible to write a specific synopsis until you’re super clear about your story.  Keep tinkering until your descriptions of character, setting, etc, are so concrete that they compel images in the mind. Specific = interesting.  And easier to write.

NEXT UP, ON WEDNESDAY

We’ll look at some examples from master novelists (and maybe some movies) as to how a whole story can be summed up in one compelling line.

Bring your favorites!

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