The Power of Synopsis in Script Outlines

I’ve been hunkered down in creating the outline for my fourth musical theater work. A massive amount of time has been spent reviewing and refining my knowledge on the process and getting back in gear. Quite a bit of time has been spent on the outline. The reason is that my first script draft, at 70 pages, became so jumbled and confusing that I had to throw it out and start all over. My new approach begins with the outline.

But even with focusing on the outline, my work has quickly ballooned into 80 pages of notes. Not even notes about my specific musical but notes on different approaches to take to script writing. So again I started with a fresh outline of “beats” only to have that, at only 6 pages, start to become a fresh new spider’s web.

You know what process I skipped? The synopsis. And now that I have re-found the synopsis part of the process it is like a lightning bolt for my vision of structure.

Here’s the quick read for those of you, like me, that need to scan quick and move on:

  1. Write a one sentence synopsis. Focus only on your main character and their visible actions.
  2. Write a one page synopsis. Focus only on your main character and their visible actions.
  3. Write a three page synopsis. Focus only on your main character and their visible actions.

That’s it. Simple and direct. For more info and backstory read on…

Approach 1 – Seat of the Pants
For my original script I used Scrivener and jumped right into the outline and dialog writing all at once. Even though I was breaking my parts into beats and scenes, it was still a little bit “seat of the pants” as I dove into whatever dialog or lyric sections suited my fancy.

Approach 2 – Detailed Outline
It didn’t work so version two turned into my 80 page combination of script notes along with painstaking details of theme, character arcs, character back stories, etc. This was also becoming unmanageable.

Approach 3 – Basic Scenes and Beats
I started with a new pared down text version of my scene breakdowns for an outline. My Approach 2 outline was on the 80 page document and now was difficult to scan quickly so that made this new approach necessary. But even as I work on this document, there is quickly problems with characters and where they fit. In retrospect, part of the problem was that I was trying to arrange my plot beats and my scenes at the same time. Big mistake. Also, I was being “too clever again by half’ with all my plot twists.

Approach 4 – Synopsis
Here I wrote three different synopsis in order: one sentence, one page and three page. I focus only on the main character and what they outwardly do. No inner dialog, feelings or anything like that.

When I wrote my three page synopsis I realized that several characters I had in my previous outlines were unnecessary. I had a major character who was right hand to the main character in my original outlines, and through the synopsis process I realized that they were really only necessary because of one beginning plot beat. By focusing on only the main character and what they outwardly do, I also see opportunity for an entire different group of supporting cast members and characters. I didn’t write about those characters because my synopsis focused on the main character. But my vision of the project has changed.

I should mention that I have also spent a great deal of time working out my premise and theme for the project. Theme that is authentic and heart felt can be a long inward journey. My theme, at this point, has not changed. But my entire vision of the project is more streamlined now because of the synopsis approach.

So to my fellow writers: If you haven’t already, write that synopsis. It’s a very quick process at the outset and relieves us from the initial burden of plot points, scenes and supporting characters.

And after synopsis, I will rewrite my beats without worrying about scenes. That will come later.

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