Have you ever heard people talk about the “bones of a story?” Maybe as in, “The story had great bones, but I didn’t like…” (Why does discussion always focus on critique? Let’s save that for a later post.) Maybe you can tell what that means from the context. The bones are essentially the frame of a story (or novel, etc.). They include its basic features and plot points. As a writer, I’ve come to think of the bones a little differently.
What Counts as the Bones of a Story?
As with anything, there’s some variation on how you define a story’s bones. Basically, it will include the major plot points of your story. The beginning, middle, and end. Also, the major moments that transition the story through those phases.
For example, if you’re using a three-act structure in your narrative, your “bones” might include specific elements in each act. Act 1: set-up, inciting action, turning point; Act 2: rising action, midpoint, turning point; Act 3: pre-climax, climax, resolution. If you’re shaping your story around the traditional “hero’s journey,” there are 12 steps you’ll want to hit as you move through your three acts.
I use those ideas when I’m creating an outline for my books. But I’ve also gotten into the habit of creating a “bones” version of my story that is basically a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
Using a Synopsis as a Story Skeleton
If you submit a book to a literary agent, they may ask for a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. That lets them skim the whole story before putting in the time to read your book. It can be a royal pain to write, just like any synopsis, bio, etc. (That might sound weird, but there’s a big difference between writing fiction and writing something to sell yourself and your work. A lot of us struggle with that!)
I’ve found that a chapter-by-chapter synopsis makes a really good story skeleton early on in my writing process. It’s more developed than the basic outline, because each chapter gets a good 1-2 paragraphs to describe the action, but lean enough to be skimmed with a feel for the overall pacing of the book.
Here’s a screen cap of my “bones” file for my first novel, The Insistence of Memory.
My Bones and Scraps Files
In addition to my outline and main writing file, I have two documents for most of by books titled “bones” and “scraps.”
The “bones” file is the chapter-by-chapter synopsis. I tend to use it more early on in the writing process. By the time I get deeper into the story, I have a stronger grasp of the overall structure. Or, I’ve changed the direction since making the bones file and stopped updating it at some point. (Ha!)
The “scraps” file is used when I’m editing. It’s a place to stick bits of dialogue or descriptive paragraphs that I really love but keep tripping over on rereads. Occasionally, pieces get rescued from the scraps file and reworked back into the narrative.
Let’s look at it this way: if the synopsis is the bones of a story, and the written story is the meat, the scraps are the fat that slow things down. They often aren’t needed… but, then again, fat adds flavor. When the story is zipping along and missing some emotional connection or wider context, that’s where I write in side plots, deeper descriptions, etc. Or pull those elements back from the scraps file if I’d cut them from somewhere else.
Writers pick and choose the methods that work for them…. or make up their own. The chapter-by-chapter synopsis is one of the ways I keep the bones of a story, and its pacing, in mind while writing a novel. Hopefully, that makes the fleshy bits of the finished book even better!