Dear Julie —
Since my advice last month also dealt with the synopsis beast, I suppose we should entitle this column “Synopses Part Deux.” Or “Doing the Dirty Deed.”
I think it’s important to approach writing a synopsis with the right attitude. Some people find it helpful to meditate to clear their heads, or take a walk to order their thoughts. I personally prepare by gritting my teeth and muttering the words of the German philosopher Nietzsche, “That which does not destroy you makes you stronger.” But that might not work for everyone.
It’s easier, of course, to synopsize a manuscript you’ve already finished. But since you often need to do a proposal — which generally includes a synopsis and about three chapters — long before you’ve completed your novel, I advise you to write the chapters first. That way the characters are alive to you, and you’ve probably already established the setting and introduced the story’s conflict.
How you cut your story to fit your synopsis requirements is a highly personal thing. Over the years I’ve tried several methods of cropping to synopsis length. I tried listing all the plot points in the story, then crossed out the unnecessary ones. More recently, I’ve planned my books by writing incidents on recipe cards, then manipulated them until I had a storyboard that works as a basis for a synopsis. Since I used the Syd Field’s* paradigm to organize my wip (work in progress), I used it to help me hone the story to it’s essentials — not very successfully, though, because my agent asked me to trim it some more before we submitted it.
Doubtless other writers have their own techniques for winnowing things to managable lengths. If you ask them how they do it, they’ll probably make a face and share their experiences, but don’t expect the Holy Grail. The truth is no one knows an easy way to do this.
Oh, and while your doing this miserable, scary, difficult thing — remember not to get so distracted telling what happened that you forget that the heart of your story lies in the characters and their emotions. THIS IS THE SINGLE HARDEST THING TO REMEMBER WHEN YOU ARE WRITING A SYNOPSIS.
For a 2-3 page (that’s only 500 – 750 words, for crying out loud!) you might try something like this. Start with an active introduction of the hero and heroine — perhaps at the moment they meet — and give a sentence (2 maximum) about each. Include what they want (internal conflict) and what it is about them and/or their situation that will make sparks fly (external conflict). Don’t dwell on physical descriptions unless they are pertinent to the story.
Spell out the major conflict in letters about a foot high; be specific and tell how this problem will impact on both the hero and heroine. If you have a villain, introduce him in conjunction with the conflict if you can. Also mention only secondary characters that are VITAL to the story — ie: the heroine’s son who has been kidnapped — but keep these characters to a minimum. (This should cover about the first three to five chapters of your novel.)
Set your sites on the midpoint climax and tell only what incidents/interactions you need to reach it. Spend a couple of sentences on the midpoint climax (usually some moment of intimacy that changes the hero and heroine’s relationship). Explain the EMOTIONAL CONSEQUENCES this has on the hero and heroine.
Reintroduce the conflict and perhaps new problems. Show how what happened at the midpoint plays out as the characters meet these new dangers/challenges. Move as quickly as possible through the circumstances that spiral your characters toward their dark moment. At the dark moment briefly reiterate what each of the characters has at stake.
Give a strong, active sentence or two that sums up the final confrontation. Resolve whatever remaining conflicts are keeping the hero and heroine apart. Write one emotionally satisfying, happily-ever-after sentence — and Voila!
Now before you reward yourself will a box of bon bons, look at your synopsis as a whole and remember, in romance THE HERO AND HEROINE’S RELATIONSHIP IS THE REASON YOU’RE TELLING THIS STORY. Does your synopsis reflects that? Does it give the HOW and WHY of your story, as well as the what. Remember that CONVEYING THE CHARACTER’S EMOTIONS IS THE KEY TO SELLING YOUR BOOK.
Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again is essential to a putting together a selling synopsis. Once you’re convinced yours makes both logical and emotional sense, take some time with your technique. 1) Use a variety of sentence structure in your synopsis — simple, compound, and complex. Simple sentences are especially effective for emphasis and in action. ie: They made love. 2) Beware of the passive voice; a good number of your sentences should begin with a subject and an active verb. Check for this. It keeps your narrative vital. 3) Give things a flow when you can. ie: After a pitched battle with Essex’s men, Sir Reginald… 4) Simplify as much as you can. Patrol for unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. They add bulk when every word counts. (You can cut 20-25 pages from a 500 page book doing this, too!) When you’re sure you’re done, have someone who doesn’t know the story read the synopsis for sense.
In the end, there is no better advice about writing a synopsis than what Nike gives you in its advertising: JUST DO IT.
And do it and do it until you’ve got something you’re willing to show an editor.