Monday, September 05, 2011

Writing a Synopsis

The synopsis. Many writers dread this as much as they dread the pitch paragraph in a query letter, sometimes more. I know I did. The very first time I wrote a synopsis, it was dreadful. I started out writing everything that happened in the story (as in, all the little things that happen as a result of the big things). It went on and on and on, and I eventually abandoned it around page five.

If you do what I did, you’ll basically have a rehash of your entire book. That kind of defeats the purpose of a synopsis. Instead, put the focus on only the big things. A synopsis should contain the major plot points, not the nuances or subplots or even too many characters.

There’s a trick to this, of course, and it’s also helpful in checking out your pacing. We’ll get to that shortly.

After I tossed my first attempt, I tried several different ways of attacking my synopsis. I finally found a system that worked pretty well.
  1. Go through each chapter and write down the major plot point, plus my absolute favorite part. If the two happen to be the same, even better.
  2. When I reach the last chapter, I have a list containing a high-level road map of my story. Turn that list into a narrative (present tense, third person, single spaced).
  3. This is almost always too long because there are too many pieces of the story that I love and want to include. At this point, I pull out a rule of thumb: if it doesn’t change the character or his/her life in some way, internally or externally, then it’s got to go.
  4. After all that, sometimes it’s still too long. Time to go through each item and prune out anything that’s not part of the story’s framework, or skeleton. I keep doing this until I’m down to a single page.
  5. Tighten up word choice, review spelling and grammar/punctuation, and polish until it shines.
What you’re left with are the most important pieces. This is what an agent or editor is going to want to see. This will entice her to read all the little things in between so she can see how everything is tied together.

There’s also the practical application: checking your pacing.

If you can’t find the major piece in a chapter, or if that piece isn’t obvious, then it might be prudent to rethink that chapter. Or, if you have too many major pieces in a chapter, it might serve the story better to spread them out.

Be careful not to over-complicate things in your synopsis. If you want to wow an agent or editor with the depth and cleverness of your writing, then put that in the pitch paragraph of your query. In a synopsis, let the story speak for itself.


Unknown said...

Quite appropriate you posting this now. Heh. I'm supposed to be working on a synopsis for my most recent WIP.

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, I ALWAYS have to cut, trim, compress the synop.

Kelly Hashway said...

I completely agree with not overcomplicating your synopsis. If you put everything in there, you'd have another version of your novel--and pretty much just as long.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Good advice. I'm almost ready to start the synopsis for my current YA. I so am dreading it. :(

Ronald L. Smith said...

This is great advice. I just finished one for my latest work, and I have to say, I think it mirrored all of your points.

angel011 said...

Back at the University, they taught us to always write the synopsis first. Granted, it was for plays and screenplays, but it can be very useful for novels too - that way you see all the major plot and charater flaws immediately, instead of after the entire book is written so it's hard to rethink it all.

Midnyte Reader said...

Thank you for the great advice! You are right, I do dread it.

martha said...
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