Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Synopsis Writing: Before or After--That is the Question

“We love synopsis writing!” Say it with me. Ready, go. “We love synopsis writing!” I can’t hear you!

And, if you’re sane, that’s a good thing.

I haven’t met the writer yet who likes writing a synopsis. Personally, I hate them. However, I’ve come to understand that, like dentist visits, they are necessary but extremely painful and not enjoyable.

So, what’s all the hate about? We all know the many, many, many, many, many…many… (anyway) reasons why writers hate synopses.

-I wrote this wonderful book, and you want me to tell all of it in 2 pages?!?!

-This is important, but that’s important too. The entire book is important. What can I possibly cut out?!?!

-What if I write the synopsis and then the book looks nothing like it?!?!

You get the idea.

So, there’s no happy way to write a synopsis. Is there, however, a good time to write the synopsis. Up until a few weeks ago, I would have said “you can’t possibly write the synopsis without finishing the book first.” I then—partially out of necessity—proved myself wrong.

My synopsis and project approval form for SHU are due this month. So, like any desperate writer, I sat down with a how-to synopsis book and set to work plotting my demise…err, synopsis. At this point, I’d written about seven chapters of my thesis—not even scratching the surface—so, for all intents and purposes, I hadn’t really started the novel. I expected to crumple to the ground, cry, bang my head on the floor in hopes of falling unconscious, and scream “I’m not worthy!” I’m pleased to announce that I did none of the above; though I did consider crying.

Actually, the synopsis came more easily than I thought possible. And—wonder of wonders—it helped. I went in with a vague outline of the plot etched in my mind and in bullet point form in an MS Word document. I twisted it all around, added some transitions, put it into complete sentences, and a miracle occurred. The gaps filled themselves in.

I kid you not.

The weak links in the story—the parts where I was sure it would fall apart—they wrote themselves. Where I had a loose idea and a desperate need for things to work out before, I now have a real event that enhances the story. I jumped for joy, spun in circles, and flapped my arms like a chicken. All right, that last part’s a lie.

How did I do it, you ask. I will attempt to break it down. Please remember, though, that synopsis writing is not an exact science. What works for one will not work for all.

-Step 1 – establish what absolutely needs to happen in the story
There are some events that just need to happen or the story can’t move forward. Find those. Make friends with them. Write them down so you don’t forget them. These are the backbone of a synopsis. Without those, there is no story. All the middle details can change. Heck, the exact happenings of the essential events can change. But, those essential events themselves need to happen. And, they need to be in your synopsis—at least a synopsis of any length. Tip: For shorter synopses, simply pick out the most essential of the essential events. For longer ones, add less essential but still important events.

-Step 2 – how do your POV Character(s) feel about said events?
A synopsis is not a play-by-play. It’s not a laundry list of events. It’s a story about your story. Find your POV and other essential characters. Add them to the event list. For the POV character(s), get inside their heads. How do they feel, react to, come to terms with the events? Do the events change them? How? In the synopsis, you may tell not show, but tell well.

-Step 3 – Final touches
Add transitions when jumping between characters, from place to place, or over periods of time. Double check to make sure emotions have been inserted in a way that makes the synopsis sound like a story rather than a list of events. Begin with a theme, hook, or (in the cases of stories with much background) a detailed description of everything that needs to be known but would not fit in the synopsis itself. End strong. In the case of “first book in a series” syndrome, add a paragraph or two at the end about events of following books.

Put it together and what do you have…?

If anyone says “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” I will hurt you.

Other things to remember:

-write in third person, present tense
-write in the same overall tone of the story (serious, upbeat, funny, etc.)
-use standard manuscript format (12 pt font, clear font such as Arial or Currier, double spaced, header with page numbers/your name/abbreviated title of manuscript on the top left)
-It’s only a synopsis. It won’t hurt you. But, also, remember that it’s a story. A second set of eyes can bring clear what one cannot.

While I’m here, I recommend the how-to book I read last semester—“Writing the Fiction Synopsis” by Pam McCutcheon. It saved my life. Okay, not literally, but you get the idea.

Anything to add? Have any award-winning synopsis tips to pass on? I encourage discussion. We’re all in the same boat with synopsis writing, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface.


  1. Well that does help me. Thanks.

  2. I'm starting a new synopsis file today (my hate for the other one is too great), and I'll be sure to keeps these points in mind!