Monday, August 19, 2013

My thoughts on the Synopsis Struggle

We all need to know how to write a synopsis. My kids get asked to do this all the time with their reading, and as writers know, people who are working with you on your book often want a synopsis so they can quickly encapsulate the book's content. Great.

I think most of you are aware that writing a synopsis is nothing like writing the original book.

I'm currently writing a couple of versions of a synopsis - one at a length of 1-2 pages and one "detailed." I thought I'd give a little description of my process in case any of you are working through the same task.

My first piece of advice is this: don't try to work off the text. Any attempt I have ever made to "reduce" my book to a synopsis has resulted in a long, winding, completely pointless waste of time. If you have an outline, use it as your basis. If you don't, work off the major arcs as you understand them. I went back to my outline and pulled line items out of it to start, so that I wouldn't miss any of the really critical events. The result of this was a list of events. A list of events is not a synopsis, because it lacks cohesion, and more importantly, feeling.

Perhaps the toughest part of synopsis writing is encapsulating the book in a way that makes people care. Essentially, goals and stakes and emotional connection are just as important in a synopsis as they are in the book - just expressed differently.

It's worth giving some time and words to your inciting event, especially if (as is often the case) it sets the major arcs of the book in motion. I found myself describing it in more detail than I expected, but at the same time, its events are fundamental to understanding the stakes, so I just went with it. That actually made it easier for me to outline the continuing arcs thereafter.

Arcs are really important to a synopsis. The synopsis isn't going to have room for any but the most major ones. This novel has three point of view characters, each with two major and often several minor arcs. But only one character is the "backbone character," so it's his arcs that have to define and organize the synopsis, and in fact, only one of his two major arcs (the power arc that organizes the book's events chronologically) gets most of the attention. His goals, and his emotions, have to organize all events and any mention of other characters. I think of it as being a little bit like a very tight short story where you know everything has to serve the central point. Everything in the synopsis has to serve the central drive. It may be that in your story you have two people who are so equally responsible for the plot's events that they are well-balanced. Not so here. Things are going to drop out. A few things are going to change.

No, of course you don't want to report your story's events inaccurately. However, if you keep them in the precise order in which they occurred, down to the tiniest detail, you can end up with a synopsis that blows up in length awfully quickly.

I'll compare it to the way that Peter Jackson handled The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien told each main character arc completely separately, leaving readers to interpret their interrelation; Peter Jackson alternated the main arcs constantly. Jackson's is the technique that's most common in books and movies I have seen recently, but when you're synopsizing, you might not have time to do a lot of switches back and forth. It's okay to take some concurrent events and separate them out from each other a la Tolkien, to reduce the number of times you need to say, "Meanwhile..."

Once you've got all your events down in an engaging way, check to make sure that each thing links to the next, and that you have mini-arcs evident in your synopsis. In this case, mini-arcs mean three mentions of something important (as in my post Three Points Make a Story Arc). Also, make sure there are no events that seem to have no relevance to the whole. It's a good idea to have other people read and critique the synopsis and ask the questions, "Does everything make sense?" and "Do I care?"

The last step for me has been to ask myself whether there is anything missing that might contribute to the emotional impact of what I've already included. It's an interesting question, and I've found a couple of places which will make a lot more sense (especially on the emotional level) if I can add a few words. In the case of my current synopsis, it's hovering right at two pages long, so every few words I add have to be counteracted with streamlining in other places. It's always a good idea to strive to find the most economical way to express what you want in a synopsis, but particularly if your book is on the long side, you want to use all your words well. Don't give a reader the impression that you aren't able to use words efficiently, or they might guess the whole thing is padded unnecessarily.

It's a lot to think about, and still something I haven't done enough times that I feel entirely confident. However, the process itself has become easier and more logical, more subject to my own control. I guess practice makes us better at all kinds of writing!

I hope you find these musings helpful in your own process.


  1. Your advice on thinking in terms of story arcs makes sense -- obvious, but I've never heard it described so clearly. I'll clip the URL to Evernote for future reference.

    I've explored some of your internal links. Your blog is a goldmine!

    1. Thanks, Deb! I really appreciate your comment. Good luck with your projects!

  2. Thanks for writing this. I think you've put some helpful stuff in here. I'm still fighting with the query letter monster, and the synopsis beast is lurking in the background. Everything I've tried so far comes off as too perfunctory with no depth to anything or, conversely, too much like a long, rambling "and then this happened, and then this and so on" sort of thing.

    1. E.L., you're welcome. I think some of the most important things to tap into are 1. emotional impact of events, and 2. reasons why events occur (either internal motivations or external reasoning). Those can help eliminate that list feeling as well as the sense of lack of depth.

  3. Gah! I hate writing the synopsis, and I hate even more when people ask me what my book is about point blank and I have to stammer through some kind of reply. This helps though, I'll keep this in mind. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome! Even with all the experience I've had, I'm still finding my way myself. It's quite an interesting task to search deep into your own book and find the purpose behind it. Good luck!