This week, I’m once again featuring one of my stories, but to show you there is no right time to go through this process, I’ve chosen a story that’s been through three or more drafts. I know it has potential, but it needs a lot of work, which makes it an ideal subject for this week’s clinic.
Here’s the current tagline.
A CPA’s personal and professional life are turned upside down when he discovers irregularities in the accounts of a new client.
Before We Get Started
In the story clinic on turning points, I spent three weeks developing the turning points for this manuscript. I worked with the major turning points in Indie Plot Twist Writing Clinic – Turning Points Clinic 2. In Indie Plot Twist Writing Clinic – Turning Points – Clinic 3, the focus was on the first minor turning point and we took an indepth look at the last minor turning point–the dark moment–in Indie Plot Twist Writing Clinic – Turning Points – Clinic 4. The reason for all that work is that the original manuscript was so weak in the first half that it was like a race horse with strong back legs and very weak front legs despite several rounds of revisions.
There is always room for improvement. Let’s see what happens with the paragraph summary.
Setting Up the Paragraph
The purpose of the paragraph summary is to lay out the novel beginning to end in a form that provides a road map for the writer. It needs to contain five sentences that do the following:
- Set the story up
- Summarize the first quarter of the story
- Summarize the second quarter of the story
- Summarize the third quarter of the story
- Wrap things up
Each of the middle three sentences should end with a major turning point and each turning point needs to be more serious than the one before.
Based on previous work, the turning point outline looks like this:
- The lead is in the middle of a much deserved and long anticipated dream vacation
- Upon returning home, the lead takes over some of a coworker’s cases when the coworker is sidelined and he soon discovers irregularities
- The business partner proposes to the lead’s client
- The lead discovers the identity of the antagonist
- The lead fights to save his life and his reputation
That means I already have the basis for a paragraph summary. Simply take those five bullet points and turn them into five narrative sentences.
Here are the five narrative sentences.
- CPA Martin Cameron is in the middle of a long-awaited, much anticipated dream vacation.
- Upon returning to work, he learns he’s been assigned some of the cases of an injured coworker, but hopes of quickly closing those cases are foiled when he finds irregularities on one of them.
- Martin’s efforts to clear professional matters up quickly to clear the way for personal interests are thwarted when his client’s business partner proposes to her.
- Broadsided by the proposal, Martin buries himself in work, determined to discover the identity of the embezzler.
- But the embezzler is one step ahead of Martin and Martin must fight to save his life and his professional integrity.
How Does It Stack Up?
This first attempt gives me a good idea of what the story is about and expands on the tagline. The major turning points are identified and I know at a glance what challenges face Martin.
It’s also five sentences, with each sentence performing a specific task.
But as I’ve mentioned before, nothing is perfect the first time through. The more you work through the process, the more quickly you’ll be able to find the right answers, but it will be a rare instance when it’s right the first time.
How Can it Be Improved?
This paragraph summary has some bothersome problems to work out. Namely, that second major turning point.
In the discussion of major turning points for this story, I explained that the second major turning point was the second major turning point because although it wasn’t directly related to the irregularities in the client’s accounts, it did directly affect Martin’s ability to deal with the professional problems.
That is still true, but the narrative description of that part of the story falls flat by my estimation. If ever there was the possibility of a sagging middle, this is it!
Finding a Better Option
The second major turning point can serve a couple of purposes.
It could be an event or situation that changes everything for the lead and he must either admit defeat or increase his level of engagement.
It might also be the moment in which the lead realizes he’s been tackling his problems the wrong way and corrects his methods.
Either purpose will work, though one may be more effective than the other for each story.
In this story, the idea of a context-changing moment is more appropriate than a moment of grace. And, indeed, the proposal of marriage is a context-changing moment for Martin. The personal world that exists after the proposal is not the same world that existed prior to the proposal. At least not for Martin.
But is it the best possible way?
One of my favorite solutions for any problem like this is brainstorming. Sit down, ask yourself “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen?”, and write down every answer that comes to mind. Every answer. Don’t rule anything out for any reason. Keep writing until you can’t think of anything else to write. Chances are, somewhere on that list (thought probably not at the beginning of it), something will click.
But wait. Is that the only solution?
I chose a proposal of marriage as the second major turning point because Martin has fallen for his client. He’s doing everything he can to solve her accounting problems as quickly as possible so he can conclude the professional relationship and pursue a personal relationship. (That’s also why the first major turning point is the first major point.)
Now take a look at the paragraph summary. I only hint at this complication in Martin’s work and life. So maybe the better solution is to amp up this aspect of the story in some way. Rather than change the turning point, why not change the paragraph summary?
The New and Improved Version
I took a few days to explore alternative paragraph summaries. After first expanding the previous summary to include everything I thought it needed to include, then paring it down again, I ended up with the following:
Straight-laced and professionally dedicated, Martin Cameron is among a handful of CPA’s assigned orphaned cases when a coworker is gravely injured. Martin experiences a “this is it” moment with one of the clients, but his hopes of wrapping up her routine audit quickly are thwarted by the discovery of irregularities. Efforts to untangle the problems are complicated by growing attraction, a struggle that persists and the client’s business partner proposes marriage to her. Blindsided by the proposal, Martin throws himself into the case, determined now to find the solution and extricate himself from emotional shipwreck, only to discover that his client’s fiancé is stealing from her. Martin’s quest for justice leads him into a struggle that could end not only with his physical death, but with professional humiliation.
Most often, a weak paragraph summary means weak turning points. But the point of this week’s clinic is that you can have a weak paragraph summary even with strong turning points. Take a look at everything to find the right solution.
I also have a paragraph summary that describes a story with a stronger first half than the existing manuscript. I know where to begin strengthening the overall story when the time comes to rewrite it.
Next week, we’ll look at an alternative to paragraph summary that’s helpful if you don’t yet know what the major turning points are.
Clinics In This Series
Week 1: What is a Paragraph Summary and Why Should You Care?
Week 2: Developing a New Story
Week 3: Improving a First Draft
Week 4: An Alternative to Paragraph Summary