Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Synopsis Struggles

Can a writer hate writing? I say an unequivocal YES. See, I despise writing the synopsis.

There. I said it.

And the collective gasp escaped into the stratosphere.

It's true, though. I've sweated and labored over a work of art, revised with a killer's instinct, edited with love -- repeated the process ad nauseum -- and queried carefully. Very carefully. So carefully that I don't query those agents who require a synopsis.

That's embarrassing to admit -- and awfully amateurish of me -- but it's true. And it's not that I haven't tried to write the darn thing. I have. In fact, I have a collection of them. I've read blog posts and agent posts, scoured the Interwriter world for articles, and studied ones others have written. I've done my homework. And it still eludes me. Oh, the concept is clear enough, I suppose -- it's the product that eludes me.

When the insightful and thought-provoking filmmaker Brian McDonald outlined the Seven Steps that Tell a Story, I dutifully scribbled them down. But it was Uppington who provided the igniting spark.

"There's your synopsis," she said.

I wonder...

Seven Steps that Tell a Story

  1. Once upon a time...
  2. And ever day...
  3. Until one day...
  4. And because of this...
  5. And because of this...
  6. Until finally...
  7. And ever since that day...
You tell me: how do you go about writing your synopsis? Is there one thing that's worked for you? Or many? Do you know a magical phrase intertwined with complicated footwork and a sprinkle of salt over the left shoulder? I'm not looking for the magic wand, just some ideas and experiences to help guide my way.
After all, like McDonald says, we tell stories in order to impart a bit of survival info. Throw me a lifeline, will ya?


  1. I'll be waiting for someone to answer this question, sorry, it won't be me.

  2. I too dread the synopsis, almost as badly as I dread the query letter. Arrrrghhh, the angst, the angst!!!

    Here are my very humble and inexperienced thoughts on the synopsis . . . Ask yourself one question: What happens in Chapter One? Write the answer down as briefly as possible. Then, ask yourself another question: What happens in Chapter Two? Again, write the answer down as briefly as possible.

    Okay, that sounds simple, and I know it's far, far more complex. It's a start.

    Example: The Hobbit - Chapter One

    Bilbo Baggins is sitting on his front step when the wizard Gandalf stops by for a visit and somehow awakens the Tookish part of the hobbit.

    Yes, very simplistic, and needs a bit more fluff. Still, a chapter by chapter synopsis (or use the Summary function in word Chapter by Chapter) is often a great start. I'll have to remember this when it comes time to perform the dreaded synopsis of my MS. SIGH!

    Best of Luck!

  3. Which kind of synopsis do you hate?

    There's the logline, the short version, the one pager, the five pager, and I've even heard of people asking for a ten page synopsis.

    I assume that you hate them all. I would imagine that if a writer was to go to hell it would be a place where they had to perfect their synopsis.

    Yes, I've been tortured by them. I'm no expert, but one thing that I've learned along the way is that you should NOT say the name of every character that you talk about. Say their role or handle instead.

    I did a five page synopsis in the voice of one of the main characters (Ahote, the Fate Changer). I actually kind of like that one. I've been told that it is fun to read. That's saying something considering how I have made people go cross eyed with some of my early synopsis attempts.

  4. Arghhh, I hate those too. The hard part is trying to figure out what goes in and what goes out. I agree with Scott. Write the one or two sentence summary for each chapter, and start cutting out scenes that don't necessarily follow the main theme. If that is too long then combine multiple chapters together until you get the length you need. It sucks, but may be required to move the publication process forward.

    I also think it is imperative to leave unanswered questions. Put out enough detail to hook the reader(agent, reviewer, etc.), but don't answer everything. You want them to feel they need to read the entire story to get their questions answered.

  5. Interesting what Douglas said. I've heard the opposite. You need to include everything. A query is a place to hook the reader by leaving unanswered questions. A synopsis is a place to spell it all out in as few words as possible. The agent/editor wants to see if you know how to write a story without taking the time to read the ms. He/she will look to see if your characters grow, if you have a beginning, middle and end. He/she will watch for a sagging middle and check to see if you answer everything that needs to be answered by the end of the story. (Although not all agents/editors will read the very end of the synopsis. Some will stop once they see all the other elements are there and then request a full.)

    Also, I'm afraid you probably won't be able to avoid synopsis writing forever. Even if the agent offers to represent you without seeing a synopsis, they may request one when they prepare to submit your ms to editors. If you're lucky enough to pass that step, and a publisher picks you up, the editor will want to read a proposal/synopsis for the next book you write as opposed to the full ms.

    Good luck!

    Lynnette Labelle


  6. I'm with Lynnette here. The agent or editor expects the synopsis to tell the main characters, the main plot storyline, the conflict, and give the ending. Dave is correct also, though...when we went on submissions I needed to give my agent a 1 paragrapher, a 3 paragrapher, as well as a full page (single spaced). I was lucky that I had the 3 paragrapher already finished, and just built off that.

    I have found that, for me, the best way is to start off with a sentence: what happens in your book? And work from there. Most stories are bigger than a sentence, but really try to congeal it down into a sentence...that way, you can work from there. Another way is how Douglas and Scott recommended, go through each chapter and write a main sentence about it. What happened? Then go back through and edit those into a flow, and voila.

    The synopsis is the most difficult part but you'll never be rid of them. ((hug))

  7. Hi,
    Well if we were all ad writers we'd have punchy pitches, but, sigh, we like to spin long tales. To write a synopsis, which I abhor, is to tell what you've been showing, the antithesis of novel writing.
    But it's purpose is to prove that you are not just pitching a concept, but you have in place a book-length plot and character development.
    I know of a couple of would-be novelists who are so excited to get feedback that they put up an opening chapter for critique (at conferences) by editors or agents. But they haven't finished the book and don't know for sure how it will end, so they skip the synopsis. Every time, the critique comes back saying it's hard to comment because I don't know where you are going.
    I guess we should think of it as a roadmap, then? But with lots of neat descriptions of the landmarks. :))Cheers.

  8. I guess I wasn't clear and assumed too much... another story for another day.

    I assumed that you need to tell what happened, including the main story, conflict, ending, etc. What I was trying to say was that you don't have enough words to tell all the why(s). I think those are some of the more interesting unanswered questions. If you try to answer them all, the story will sound flat from a synopsis point of view.

    If you are still in sell mode, which means query and partials, then I think you have to be continually selling the agent on why they should be interested in your story. They have a LOT of stories to choose from. They need to know what is unique and interesting about your particular story that will justify spending their valuable time on it.

  9. 1. Include only the main characters, 2 to 4 max, by name. Any more and it gets too confusing. You can hint at the existence of other characters.

    2. Include only the main plotline; hint at the existence of subplots. This makes writing a synopsis easier. Just tell your main character's story.

    3. You'll hear lots of "length" guidelines, but the best synopsis of an 80,000 word novel is about 2 pages, single spaced. (1-1/2 to 3 pages is fine.)

    4. Make sure there is beginning, middle, end; and convey that there are layers and depth. Crucial to avoid getting too convoluted.

    5. Do NOT use the suggested "What happens in chapter 1?" formula. You'll create an unreadable document that is far too long anyway. You need to write in broad strokes about the main plot and characters.

    6. You may never love writing a synopsis; however, as long as you actively hate and/or resent writing them, it will show, and you'll create bad ones.

    7. Agents and editors need to get a feel for your whole book. This is not just busy work, so if you're feeling resentful because it feels like another "hoop" to jump through, get over it! You're providing helpful and necessary information to those who need it.

    Have you ever watched Grey's Anatomy? Those doctors love being doctors more than anything in life. But they don't love all of it. They don't want to work the clinic bandaging cut fingers and they REALLY don't want to be assigned the guy in curtain-2 with a hemorrhoid problem. But they do their jobs.

    Maybe writing a synopsis is your hemorrhoid guy. Do your job!

  10. In case you didn't realize it, Rachelle is an honest to God agent, and from what I've seen, a good one. I read her blog http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com and it is a wealth of information.

    Thanks for the insight Rachelle. (BTW I'm not sucking up) :-D

  11. Here are a few more thoughts:

    First, Alex, you can write a great synopsis. I remember that you posted a synopsis of my novel shortly after the PNWA conference. I was so impressed that I told my wife that you should write the blurb for the back of my book. (cause it's about to hit the shelves and I need that job done right away)

    So, check back to that post and see what you did there. Just do the same kind of thing for your own story. I liked the way you conveyed the spirit of the story in the blurb much better than I had in a synopsis.

    Now, you asked about what we have done that works. Magic tricks?

    Well, one of the most helpful things I have found is a sentence that Maass wrote in the back of his Break Out Novel Workbook.

    "Actually, the most effective outlines are those that are like reading the novel in miniature. They bring us inside characters' heads using strong point of view and highlight the story's turning points in various ways," (p.226).

    I've found that if I try to say everything it muddles everything. If I stick to a few of the main characters and a few of the main turning points things go much better.

    Now, Maass might not recommend using first person/past tense and a characters' POV, but I tried it and that's what I entered in the PNWA contest. It was more fun and told the story in miniature much better than any of the reports that I wrote. It also helped me to convey some emotion, which is needed but hard to do in a synopsis.

    In the end, I think the best thing to do is come up with something and then workshop it with people that have read your book. Then try it out on people that have not read your book. Take in their feedback and see where the details need to be filled in.

    You helped Patrick out with an important detail or two at the Wenatchee conference. That was a pitch, but it all ends up being the same kind of thing.

  12. I am right there with ya! Synopses are tough!!! *sigh*

  13. what a phenomonal outpouring of thoughts! thank you, everyone :) much to think about here, more to accomplish...

    @Elizabeth McKenzie: read the comments -- there are rich resources here at your fingertips. Are we lucky or what?

    @Scott: that is a method I have tried...and I came away with this limp fish of a tale. I think it's probably a decent way to contemplate one's own novel, but it seems to be missing a vital, life-giving force.

    @Lynnette LaBelle: thank you -- I think you've made a very valid point: agents need to see that you can tell an entire story. (Since I'm currently teaching it) I keep thinking about every complication that ups the ante in Romeo & Juliet. I'm assuming those are the points one must include :)

    @JKB: it's valuable knowing, however, that you were required to have all three. I think if I just continue messing around with the product, attempting to accomplish each, maybe I'll end up with something half way decent. knowing i have you for a resource makes me smile and know that i can do this: kinda like dumbo & his feather, i think...

    @Tricia J. O'Brien: point well taken. I think that's what I've been struggling with the most. I feel like I'm telling instead of showing. And that makes me feel like a horrid writer :D

  14. @Rachelle: invaluable insight -- my humble thanks for providing it so concisely :) and good point about resentfulness. it always shows, doesn't it? I'm not certain I resent the thing -- I intellectually comprehend its necessity -- but I am confounded at my continued suckiness at accomplishing it :D I am, however, taking your advice: I'm gonna do my job! and cheerfully :D

    @dave: it seems to me that it might be easier to write someone else's synopsis. sometimes it feel like i can't see the forest for the trees :) On the flip side, maybe it's just a matter of ignoring all but the complications which rachet up the tension...while still conveying that there are 'layers and depths'. thank you, too, for the maass tip. i really am going to buy the book!

    @doug: dave, patrick, and i were just having this conversation (though, related to pitches) last weekend. I'm still not certain which side of the fence I'm on (maybe I can straddle it?) -- but you're right: engaging and holding the interest of an agent is ultimately your goal. It's the flat part that I'm struggling with, which is why i hate my synopses!

    @Litgirl01: well, at least we're in the boat together, yes?

  15. Rachelle,

    Oh my God, "hemorrhoid guy"!

    I laughed until the cat jumped off my lap.

  16. Thanks for this post. I don't have a plan yet for writing a synopsis (I've only written two for mss that aren't ready for submission yet, so they haven't seen much daylight).

    I'm glad I wrote them, though. Especially the second one. As I was writing it I realized that the mss didn't actually follow the synopsis - the synopsis was BETTER! It helped me focus the plot a bit, so I've thrown out some chapters and am reworking it.

    Though tough to write, a synopsis is worth the struggle.

  17. The synopsis snags up my synapses.

  18. @Karin: good to see you here :) i love the varied paths we take to reach the same goal. and i also love how willing you are to toss chapters in order to make the book a better read. Interesting thought -- using a synopsis to focus plot!

    @Charles Gramlich: ;D oh come now, you have a great deal more insight to offer than alliterated poetry...delightful though it is. i know this to be true

  19. It's difficult to boil down your 'perfect' piece of work, but it's doable. It's just a question of remembering what the story actually is. And if you haven't kept that in mind during the writing, it probably needs bits hacking off anyway.

  20. Alex - I have yet to sit down and try the 'McDonald Method', but I still think it will work. My best thoughts on synopsis writing? Just do it. Start somewhere, and take it from there. My first synopsis was 10 pages. I whittled it down to five. Then I did a two page, and a one page. Learned a lot in the process, although I certainly wouldn't claim to have it down. Some things in life you learn by doing. I fear the dreaded synopsis is one of them.

  21. @stu: *sigh* yes, indeed. it's hard leaving out all the delightful pieces you love and only including the vital parts. :)

    @uppington: you are so right. like most unhappy things, like -- oh, cleaning toilets -- it's just a matter of doing it. ack! :D


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