Full Synopsis as Revision Tool

**I wrote the following blog in September 2016 after getting home from the ATHE Conference. Feast on some old content while I try to figure out how to fit blog-writing into my writing routine!

Here's another goody I got from the ATHE Conference. This comes from playwright Alvaro Saar-Rios, who has been commissioned for THIRTEEN (!!!) plays all over the country. He had a ton of great advice, but I most connected with his use of full synopses for his plays. 

Step One: Write a First Draft!

So easy, right? 

Here's the important takeaway: Saar-Rios said he was very intentional about putting the first draft of the play away for as long as possible -- anywhere from a couple of months to a year. He averages about two months, he said, but that's because commissioned work usually has a strict timeline.

The goal is to get some distance. 


Step Two: Write a Synopsis!

At some point during the Waiting Period, write a detailed synopsis: Something that tells the story as it is from beginning to end. 

The goal is not to write a synopsis that tells the story you want to tell but rather the story you are already telling in your first draft, with all its flaws and imperfections. 

Include the story arc, a good description of each character, and make sure you hit all of that *~~IMPORTANT INFO~**~

  • What do my characters want?
  • What's the driving force behind the story?
  • Et cetera et cetera

This synopsis should be anywhere from 5 to 20 pages for a full length script. Or more or less than that (thought I doubt you could write less than 5 page and still be thorough). 

Again, key takeaway: write a thorough synopsis of the play as it is in the first draft.

Still with me?


Step Three: Revise the Synopsis!

We're still in that Waiting Period, and now we're revising the synopsis. This is where we want to make the synopsis tell the story we want to tell, taking out the flaws and discontinuities, adding character depth and conflict, clarifying the arc and character needs, heightening the hell out of everything.

Basically, fix all the things that seem broken. And the best part is, you're still not touching the Actual Play -- you get to explore and experiment the story without getting bogged down in the details of the dialogue. By revising the synopsis, you get to create the roadmap for the play without getting caught up in some of the pitfalls of scene drafting. (For me, those pitfalls are either "Ha ha, this line is a very funny line; I'm brilliant" or the equally disturbing, "This sucks. I suck.")

Revise the synopsis to your heart's content. Do a few different pass-throughs: maybe focus on structure during one revision, then focus on character development, etc. etc.


Step Four: Revise the Play!

After you've given yourself some space from the play, apply the things you've learned from synopsis-drafting to the play itself. 

Think of the synopsis as a blueprint. Metaphorically speaking, you can lay the revised synopsis overtop the play and start crafting the play you have to fit the story you want to be telling (the story that's now, hopefully, in your revised synopsis). 

Of course, you'll have to do more revisions than what is reflected in the synopsis, particularly the crafting of dialogue -- after all, that's what it's all about. But it seems like an incredible first-to-second-draft aid. 


It may help to keep the synopsis updated as you revise the play, too. That way you can always go back to the synopsis and say, "Am I telling the story I want to be telling?" And then if you get stuck, you can put the play away again, come back to the synopsis, and see where a new revision of the synopsis might take you.