The Plotting Grid and Synopses

As I promised last week, I’m back with a report on using The Plotting Grid to create a synopsis for the as-yet-unwritten sequel to my Work-in-Progress (WIP).  The Grid is a great tool for planning a story at any stage of inception, but I find it particularly helpful with writing a synopsis – just “fill in the blanks” with the key story elements, and you have all the material you need for a synopsis at your fingertips.

SYNOPSIS:  “a way of relating your story in a logical, chronological manner that hits the high points of plot and character development and resolution” (Writing the Fiction Synopsis: a step by step approach by Pam McCutcheon)

Note: A synopsis is NOT the same as the blurb on the back of a book or the “pitch paragraph” you include in a query letter.

The Plotting Grid itself consists of 20 squares, each representing a plot point.  It’s laid out in four rows of five squares.  An optional component is a sector for documenting “GMC” (goal, motivation, conflict) for your main character(s).  I like to have both internal and external GMC for the protagonist and antagonist, as well as a third main character – the love interest or another protagonist –for a total of three character GMCs I can display at one time.

blank plotting grid

The Plotting Grid

Here are two different methods for creating your own grid:

To get started, you’ll need your grid, sticky notes, and a helpful feline companion (optional).

photo of feline companion "helping" with the plotting grid

Feline Companion “helping” with the Plotting Grid

I begin by noting the places of the plot elements I want to include (your elements and placement may differ):

• the “ordinary world” and the “inciting incident”

Ordinary World, Inciting Incident

“ordinary world” and “inciting incident”

• the “plot catalyst” and the first “turning point” (which are often the same incident)

Plot Catalyst, First Turning Point

“plot catalyst” and “first turning point”

• the other main “turning points” (always at the far right side of the grid, before you turn to start the next row)

the three main "turning points"

the three main “turning points”

• the “black moment,” the “climax,” and the “denouement”

the "black moment," "climax" and "denouement"

the “black moment,” “climax” and “denouement”

Once I have all my generic elements on the grid, I add GMC for my primary protagonist.  You might not proceed in this order, but I can’t plan a story without knowing the main character’s external goal, since trying to achieve that goal is the primary plot thread.

internal and external "GMC" for main character

internal and external “GMC” for main character

Next I add in scenes and plot points of my story, moving them around until I’m happy with the order and have mostly filled in the grid.

a Plotting Grid filled in

a Plotting Grid filled in

Note that there are some blank squares.  Since in this case I’m laying out a story that has not yet been written, I don’t know all the elements yet.  If I were using the grid to map a story I’d already written, I’d probably have MORE plot points than boxes on the grid, and I’d have to whittle down to the essentials.

Whether you use the grid to try out a possible plot for a story concept, or to map the key elements of a story that’s in progress or already complete, the grid can be a tremendously useful tool for gathering all the information in one place that you need to create a synopsis.

As for the synopsis itself, there are a whole lot of options with regard to length, style, and which elements to include.  Your decisions hinge on what your purpose for the synopsis is, the requirements of the person (editor, agent) you’re sending it to, and in some cases your genre.  So find out the requirements and parameters for the particular synopsis you’re writing, create a little outline of what it should look like, and fill in the blanks using the elements you’ve identified in your plotting grid.

Some key things to include in a synopsis:

Your voice.  Or your voice in the story, to be exact.  This can be one of the hardest things to work into a synopsis, but editors and agents say it’s one of the most critical elements to include.

The ending.  The vast majority of editors and agents say that if you’re sending a synopsis with a submission, it must include the climax and conclusion of the story.  You may be tempted to “tease” the reader, hoping to entice them to read the whole story to find out what happens, but this is a big no-no.  If an editor or agent has asked for a synopsis, it’s typically because they want to see how the plot and character arc(s) progress, and how you tie up the story at the end.

Clarity.  Let’s face it, novel plots are complex.  Don’t get so wrapped up in the details, nuances, and permutations that you confuse the reader.  It’s more important to be clear than to be 100% accurate, so simplify!  In the same vein, most novels have more than a couple key characters.  Narrow down your cast of characters in the synopsis to the barest essentials.

Third person, present tense.  You may be tempted to relay your synopsis in first person if your story is told in the first person – after all, what better way to include “voice” – but don’t do it!  And no matter what tense your actual story is told in (most typically, past tense), synopses are told in the present tense.

For more information on writing synopses:

Writer’s Digest has a ton of information, resources, and synopsis examples:

In my opinion, the best book on the subject is Pam McCutcheon’s Writing the Fiction Synopsis: a step by step approach.

As for my own synopsis – the one for the sequel to my WIP that I owe “Agent C” – I made some progress, but I’m still struggling to come up with a plot that’s powerful and captivating enough to warrant a sequel.  I’m afraid even the best tools can’t make a sucky story sound good.  I’ll keep you posted when things change.  For now I remain sequel-less.

16 thoughts on “The Plotting Grid and Synopses

    • I used a “science fair” type cardboard form. It measures 2 feet by 3 feet, not including the foldable flaps (which I did not use). On the opposite side I have a graph of the hero’s journey…. Hmmm. Might that be foreshadowing a future blog post? 🙂

    • Thank you! And welcome to Delve Writing 🙂 We hope you’ll come back often. We post here twice a week, plus for October and November we’ll be posting short tips, exercises, and the like each day for those doing NaNoWriMo. They should be useful to those not NaNo-ing, too!

  1. Wow. I was looking for this about a year ago, when I “retired” and finally had the time to devote to writing that novel I always knew I would write. It was NOT going well. Then, a little children’s story flashed into my head, and I almost dismissed it as what I did easily and well — not the “great work” I wanted to be called to write. But I realized I could get a few books of stories and poems ready to self publish, and set up a program to accomplish that. Now, I’m at the point where my “little stories” have become full chapter books, and the need for goals, motivation, conflict and resolution are bigger than ever. Thanks for the tool!

  2. Pingback: A Different Kind Of Clarity | donna everhart

  3. I’ve put off reading this post as a bookmark because I wanted to really get it. So here I am, before the family rises. I am very visual organizer, and even then I’m using the term loosely, this Plotting Grid is great!
    My mind immediately started thinking about which board to steal in our house and how to get this started. This nanowrimo knocking on the door, I’m anxious to get moving on a sequel too. Thanks Chris!

  4. Pingback: Writing The Sequel | Phenweb Publishing

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