14. Using the 5 Key Elements

In the previous section where we looked at writing your query letter, we examined the role of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Concept in discovering the structure of your novel. We first looked at how it could be used to develop an elevator pitch and then expanded further on the concept when writing a brief synopsis. In this lesson we are going to once again return to the Snowflake Concept and use the Five Key Elements to act as the skeleton when writing your full synopsis.

In the previous lesson we looked at the role of the synopsis and discovered that it was a document that not only provided a summary of your book’s plot, but also reassured publishers that your book will fit into their portfolio and that the synopsis could be used to promote your book internally. The aim of this lesson is to give you a solid, workable framework from which you can write a synopsis that provides agents and publishers with all the information they require to make an informed decision about your book. It will also help you avoid writing a synopsis that fails to outline all the key characters and all the major plot events.

At this point I would suggest that you go back and re-read Writing A Brief Synopsis. I would also suggest you take a quick look at what Randy Ingermanson has to say regarding the Snowflake Method.

To recap, the Five Key Elements approach asks five questions, which when answered by a writer will pull out the essential aspects of a novel. The questions are as follows:

  • 1. Who’s the main character?
  • 2. What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action?
  • 3. What is the main character’s aim?
  • 4. What is stopping the character from achieving their goal?
  • 5. What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character’s goal may be lost forever?

You should have already answered these questions and it is these answers we are going to use to develop the synopsis.

The Start, the Middle and the End

Most successful novels, and almost all successful films, operate using a variant of a classic three-act structure. In its most simple terms this is the concept of the start, the middle and the end. Here is a very rough (and I mean very rough) outline of a typical three-act structure:

  • START: The inciting incident occurs, this is an event in which the protagonist is forced to act
  • MIDDLE: The protagonist attempts to resolve the inciting incident but faces ever-increasing difficulties
  • END: The inciting incident is resolved by the protagonist

The Five Key Elements approach is designed to use the five key questions to allow you to clearly define your novel’s start, middle and end. If we now combine the five key questions and the three act structure we get the following:

  • START: The inciting incident (Question 2) occurs, this is an event in which the protagonist (Question 1) is forced to act
  • MIDDLE: The protagonist attempts to resolve the inciting incident but faces ever-increasing difficulties (Questions 3 and 4)
  • END: The inciting incident is resolved by the protagonist (Question 5)


Let’s use a very basic police drama as an example. The plot is pretty straightforward. Bob Smith is a cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets the job done. He is divorced and likes a drink. When a serial killer strikes for the second time in Bob Smith’s city, it is up to the cop to track down the killer.

OK — let’s apply the five questions:

  • 1. Who’s the main character? Bob Smith
  • 2. What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action? Second murder
  • 3. What is the main character’s aim? To capture the killer
  • 4. What is stopping the character from achieving their goal? Don’t know who the killer is, must follow the clues
  • 5. What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character’s goal may be lost forever? Meets the killer in a violent showdown

This may seem like a very simplistic breakdown of the story, but when writing a synopsis it is best to work from the bottom upwards. If you are able to sketch out the start, middle and end of your novel it will be far easier to expand this into a 3-5 page synopsis.

Think in Acts

Having answered the Five Key Elements questions and mapped out your novel’s start, middle and end, it is now time to look at your plot in detail. The best way to think about your novel when writing a synopsis is in acts and scenes. If you have followed the start, middle and end process detailed above, you will have a natural three-act structure, with Act I the start, Act II the middle and Act III the end. Let’s apply this to our example:


ACT I (start): The serial killer strikes for a second time and it falls to Bob Smith to solve the murder

ACT II (middle): Bob Smith follows the clues found at the murder scene until slowly uncovering the identity of the murderer

ACT III (end): The murderer is tracked down to an old deserted warehouse. Bob Smith kills the murderer in a showdown. The motive for the killings is revealed

I strongly suggest that at this point, you split your novel into acts. I understand that you may feel your novel doesn’t fit the three act structure and that’s fine. However, it will still naturally split into scenes. There are models for five-act novels, or even more. Yet what is important when writing your synopsis, is not the act structure, but the fact that you have clearly identified the acts in your book.

Think in Scenes

A scene is a passage of your novel in which the protagonist undergoes some kind of change. This might be emotional, they may learn something new or it may simply be a change in circumstances. In their own way, a scene is a story in itself. A good indication of a scene is that it can be lifted from a book and stand alone. Each scene will have a start, middle and end. It will also have an element of conflict.

Your next step is to split your acts into scenes. There is no rule to number of scenes per act and each scene can be a different length. In fact, each act can be a different length (in a classic three act structure Act 1 and 3 tend to be of similar length and both shorter than the longer Act 2). In fact, you will probably find that you have a ready-made scene breakdown in the form of your chapters. There is a strong possibility that you have naturally formed chapters from scenes.


I have resisted the temptation of plotting out a full novel and have instead included the breakdown of the first three scenes of Act 1:

ACT 1 - scene 1: Bob Smith is woken to be told of a murder. The reader learns that Bob Smith is single and the disorganised nature of his living arrangements point towards a disorganised life. (Change: learns of murder — inciting incident)

ACT 1 - scene 2: Bob Smith arrives at the murder scene. The victim and the circumstances of the death are similar to a past murder. (Change: learns that a serial killer is active)

ACT 1 - scene 3: Bob Smith attends the post mortem. He discovers the victim was stabbed with an unusual knife, perhaps ceremonial. He also discovers a note in the victim’s mouth with a biblical text inscribed. (Change: learns vital clues)

This example gives you an outline you can use to plot out your own novel’s scene and act structure. From this outline you will be able to produce your synopsis.

Summarise Your Plot

Having identified your novel’s act structure and then listed the scenes within each act, you are finally in a position to write your synopsis. There is no easy way to do this and the long and short is that you are going to have to summarise down the key events. We will talk more in the next lesson about the length of your synopsis, but as a rule of thumb you are heading for between 2-5 pages (double spaced).

To add to the complexity, you don’t want to be talking about acts and scenes in the synopsis. Your synopsis needs to be a reflection of your novel with its own narrative arc (start, middle and end). To help you visualise the kind of document you will produce, I have summarised the example we have used above. One word of warning here. Our example contains just one character and none of the complexity that you will find in a full novel. However, the example below will act as a workable guide.

BOB SMITH, a middle age cop with relationship issues and a problem with drink, is called to the scene of a grisly murder. On arrival he finds the corpse of a mutilated young girl. After only a brief examination he recognises the method of her death. Another girl was killed in a similar manner only weeks before and Bob Smith is sure he has a serial killer in his city. The post mortem confirms Bob’s fears, whilst also revealing the killer used a strange ceremonial knife and left a note containing a biblical quote in the mouth of the dead girl.


  • 1. Use the Five Key Elements questions
  • 2. Split into acts and scenes
  • 3. Ensure synopsis has its own start, middle and end