The Synopsis Is Your Friend
I am a weirdo for many reasons, not the least of which is that I enjoy writing a synopsis. (I also enjoy query-writing, but that’s another story for another blog post for another day.)
Drafting a synopsis is my number one revision tool. I’m (mostly) a pantser when it comes to churning out first drafts. Once I’m done, I find it difficult to gage if what I’ve written flows well. That’s where the synopsis comes in. By taking a stab at drafting a synopsis (in its initial stages—it doesn’t have to be perfect), the big picture plot becomes crystal clear. Things that are highlighted? Subplots that lead nowhere, storylines that need resolution or scrapping, character arcs that don’t…well, arc. After all, it’s the character’s growth (by way of the effects of the plot) that the synopsis should show us.
So, how do you do it?
I print out my manuscript (yes, the entire thing) and I boil each chapter down to its meat and bones summary—I’m talking only two or three sentences each. That gives me a skeletal outline of my synopsis. Each chapter’s summary will then read something like this: Main character wants to _______ BUT he’s thwarted by ________. It’s a “Character wants ABC….BUT…XYZ holds him back” formula. And you just continue onward through the rest of the novel, taking care to cut out extraneous details that either don't shift plot points or that either don't otherwise affect the main character's arc. Oftentimes it’s necessary to include the character’s emotional state as it changes throughout the novel, in order to show his or her growth. Don’t worry about the “show don’t tell” rule here. It doesn’t apply to the synopsis. In a synopsis, you can just flat-out tell us the character’s emotion. For example, “Excited about her new job, an impulsive Jane spends her last dollar on an Armani briefcase for her new boss.” And then remember to bring in the critical conflict in each chapter with a BUT (or "however"...or "despite such and such"--you get the idea). “Excited about her new job, an impulsive Jane spends her last dollar on an Armani briefcase for her boss, but when she learns that the position was also promised to someone else, she grows distraught.”
Additional points to remember:
- · As you might have heard, you don’t want any teasers in the synopsis. This isn’t a query or pitch. The synopsis should give away all the plot details and should clearly spell out the ending of the book.
- · Characters full names should appear in all capitals the very first time you mention that particular character. After that, no capitals necessary.
- · To minimize confusion, keep the characters lean. I’ve heard different schools of thought on this, but I think the consensus is no more than 4-5 characters. Of course, as with all writing, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If it’s necessary, then by all means include more, but make sure they are absolutely critical to the main character’s arc.
A few helpful resources:
- Chuck Sambuchino's "5 Tips on How to Write a Novel Synopsis" is a terrific, brief introduction to the synopsis-drafting process.
- The master post that I always refer back to when I'm at the synopsis stage is "How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis" by NYT bestselling author Susan Dennard. Susan's website is packed with additional fantastic writing tips and resources as well. (It's my go-to site when I have questions or need a reminder.)
- This will sound wacky, but when I'm stuck I peruse the synopses of my favorite movies on IMDB. Some are better than others, but it's a perfect way to get in the habit of visualizing the plot and character arcs as a whole, and how to pare it all down to 1-2 pages worth of critical information.
Feel any better? I hope!