Posts Tagged writing a synopsis
I just finished the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, and am now querying agents. So I’ve had to write a synopsis.
I don’t know any writer who relishes the synopsis. Essentially, you take 100,000 words (103,000, in my case) and boil it down, spoilers and all, to 500. And hate every moment.
But we have to do it. And this time, I came to an important realisation, one that made the process so much easier.
First, you need to get it down.
Phase 1 – outline the story
- Start with the protagonist. Introduce them and the status quo.
- Describe the incident that kicks off the main action and how it affects the main character.
- Describe how everything becomes complicated, the main plot turns, how they test the protagonist and make them change their goals.
- Mention any traditions and tropes of your genre that will appeal to your ideal readers. Amazing settings, outlandish murders etc.
- Describe the protagonist’s lowest point.
- Add the ultimate crisis or confrontation, and how the protagonist faces it.
- Finish with the resolution – how the protagonist is changed (or not), whether they’re wiser, happier, sadder, more true to themselves etc.
- Now consider other characters, if you haven’t already. Who else should you add so the synopsis makes sense? Choose the most important characters.
- How do those main relationships develop? Add that.
- Also add themes and issues.
- And lastly, what’s your most original and exciting idea? Make sure you’ve showcased that.
- Splice it all together, so it flows as a story in its own right.
You’ll have to fit it into just one page. There’s a lot you might have to leave out. In Ever Rest, I have four main characters, but there wasn’t room in the synopsis to explain all their arcs. So I left one out. My synopsis is a version of the story with just three of the main characters.
So you now have a document that makes sense but probably looks entirely soulless, compared with the rich experience it is derived from.
Hold that thought.
Here, we eavesdrop on writerly life.
Husband Dave is also a writer (here’s a post about the two-writer household). It’s useful for support and also for tough love.
Dave: ‘Have you got your synopsis ready?’
Me: ‘Yes. I hope nobody reads it.’
Dave: a severe look.
I realised. That would not do.
I searched my soul. I had written the synopsis in a state of frustration and rebellion. This is stupid. Why do I have to write this? I’d prefer you read the whole book instead.
Does that sound familiar?
So here’s the biggest secret.
I decided I had to stop hating that document.
Writers are creatures of expressive emotion, and that emotion shines through our work. The reader can tell which characters we’re most committed to, which situations arouse our deepest curiosity, which ideas we love. We draw on our most genuine parts to write a story. We believe in it. We need to bring that belief to the synopsis too.
I read my synopsis and saw it had no soul. It was just a series of events. I rewrote those events, concentrating instead on the characters’ emotions. The rage, the hope, the fear, the distress, the dread, the yearning. Suddenly, I was enjoying it. I still loved telling the story the long way, the proper way. But now, I loved this new way to tell it.
That’s what you’re looking for. If someone reads your synopsis, you want them to crave the full-length experience, not to shrug and move on.
So set yourself a challenge. You know you’ve got a fine book, full of emotion, jeopardy and your own genius originality. For your second phase of synopsising, write with that spirit. Don’t write it with disdain. Write it with love.
(There’s a lot more about writing synopses in my Nail Your Novel workbook.)
Oh, and what’s Ever Rest? And why, if I can self-publish, am I looking for an agent? All discussed here
Some novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)
With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.
1 Conduct a research interview
A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.
2 The like/don’t-like list
Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.
(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)
As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.
3 Write a synopsis
This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.
Psst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel
Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0
Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.