Monday, October 17, 2011
The Sum of the Parts: Writing a Synopsis
Aside from queries -- and maybe electronic hotel card keys -- few things are as frustrating as writing a synopsis. I've found that approaching them similarly to how I approach outlining my novel helps me narrow down what to put into it.
Let me say up front that this format works for genre and plot-heavy stories, but I'm not sure how well it would work for literary or purely character-driven fiction. I think the same basic principles can apply, but you'd probably need to be a bit looser in definitions. "Disaster" can be a literal disaster, or an emotional one.
A few "rules." A synopsis is written in third person present tense, even if the novel is not. The goal is to show an agent you know how to plot, and you have a story that does what a story should do. Grab a reader, build on conflicts and stakes, and resolve the story in a satisfying way. You want to show your story and make it active, but a certain amount of telling is going to happen just due to the nature of synopses. Don't fret too much if it sounds that way. If it sounds boring, then worry, but as long as the story sounds like something someone would want to read, you're okay. You want that sense of building doom and escalating trouble, and you want someone to wonder what happens next. You can try reading it to someone paragraph by paragraph, stopping each time and asking if your listener feels compelled to know what happens. (You'd need a good person for this)
There are usually a half dozen or so major moments in your story. The set pieces. The stuff that makes up the turning points of the story. Those usually fall out about like this:
Act one crisis
Act two revelation
Act three disaster
In the book: The opening scene is, of course, the way the book opens. It introduces the protag and the world and gives a taste of why this person is different or special enough to ask someone to read about them.
In the synopsis: I try to stick to a paragraph to cover this, summing up the key points someone needs to know to understand the character. The details that, without knowing, you couldn't understand the synopsis. Like if the protag happens to have a magical ability to shift pain.
The Inciting Event:
In the book: The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion. It's usually the thing the query hook is based on, and what you'd find on the back of a cover jacket.
In the synopsis: Another paragraph that covers this event and why it matters. Motivation is very important in a synopsis, as that shows the story drive and why these things are important. So don't forget to tell the why as well as the what and how (this goes for the whole thing not just the beginning).
Act One Crisis:
In the book: This is when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Your protag has just discovered she has a big problem and needs to solve it or else. Typically, this is what happened when she tried to deal with whatever she encountered in the inciting event.
In the synopsis: One to two paragraphs on what happens and why it's important. Don't forget your stakes, since this will show how the story problems escalate. She had problem A, but now it's worse and she has to do B.
Act Two Revelation:
In the book: The protag has done some digging and found out things are not what they seem. A secret is revealed that makes it clear she's in a bit over her head, but she has no choice but to go on. Or else. (Never forget the or else.)
In the synopsis: Unless it's a complicated plot, you can usually get away with one paragraph here. Show how the protag is stuck between a rock and hard place, and up the stakes yet again. Don't forget why they need to do this.
In the book: Not everyone does this, but I like to send the story sideways in the middle and give readers something they weren't expecting. The reader thinks they know where the story is going, but wait! Suddenly it all changes.
In the synopsis: One paragraph here that sums up the protag's world being turned upside down and forcing them to act in a way they swore they never would. Or thought they couldn't.
Act Three Disaster:
In the book: This is the race to the climax, so things are usually pretty bad by now. The protag has a big plan to save the day, and of course, she fails miserably. It was one of those all or nothing plans, so she's way worse off now than she's been the entire story.
In the synopsis: One paragraph that shows the event and how the stakes have been raised yet again. A good spot to show how the protag feels about it all as well, since this will usually show what they're willing to risk to win.
In the book: The final showdown with the big bad guy. The protag has to face off with who or whatever has been making their lives miserable for 400 pages, and because they've learned XYZ over the course of the book, they win by a truly stunning and surprising ploy.
In the synopsis: One to two paragraphs that sums up this ending. Don't hold back on the details trying to save it for the novel. You want to show the agent or editor that you can deliver a solid and satisfying ending.
In the book: The happily ever after. Or the burning apocalypse if that's your thing. What the protag is going to do now that they've saved the day.
In the synopsis: One paragraph that ties it all up. If there's a moral or something the protag was supposed to learn in the story, this is a good spot to sum it up. "Bob learns that trying to out do Jack in tequila shots was a bad idea indeed."
This format will give you a one to two page synopsis, and you can add or cut where needed. A common rule of thumb is to give the same ratio of space to the events in the synopsis as you do the book. So if the opening takes up 5% of the novel, it'll take up 5% of the synopsis. That can show the pacing and flow of the story.
For the first pass, don't try to limit yourself too much. Just write it, even if it's bad. The goal of the first pass is to get the basic information down. It'll probably suck, but you'll make it better once you figure out what needs to go in there.
After you get it all down, then start tweaking. This is where all that practice you did cutting out weak verbs and adverbs comes in handy. You have to say a lot in a limited space, so every sentence needs to be as tight as possible.
Once you're done, find someone you trust who knows nothing about the story and have them read it. Have them mark where they got confused or didn't understand something. You want people to be able to follow the story, even if some of the details are unclear. For example, they might not know what a Vexon capacitor is, but they know the bad guy uses it to blow up the hero's home world.
Oh, that reminds me...names. The human brain can only remember so much, so be wary about naming everything and everyone. You want the key players mentioned, but you want to be wary about throwing in so much it all starts to blend together.
Some people advise capitalizing names, but I always just capitalized the protag's name the first time I used it, then left the rest normal. Sometimes I don't capitalize at all. I've also heard capitalize POV characters the first time. This varies by taste.
It's a good idea to let your synopsis sit between readings. Just like your manuscript, time away gives you perspective and lets you spot those awkward sentences you gloss over when you've been reading it over and over.