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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Synopsizing (Or, The Art of Writing A Synopsis Without Dying Too Much)

If you're an author pursuing publication, there's a good chance you'll have to write a synopsis of your novel at some point or other. 

What is a synopsis, you ask?

Synopsis: (n) a terrible beast from the darkest depths of Tartarus that causes a writer to forget everything that happened in their book. 

A synopsis is, quite simply, a highly condensed version of your novel.  It tells what happens on the most basic level of your novel, without any embellishment.  It's a way of giving agents, editors, etc. an overview of your novel without actually reading the novel.  It's longer than a blurb than you'd see on the back of a book.  It ranges from around 500 words to a few pages, depending on the requirements of whoever is making you write a synopsis.

Because you probably would never do it unless someone made you. 

I realize that for some writers, a synopsis is an excellent planning tool, and it's probably actually easier to write before you write your novel.  But for now, we'll talk about synopsizing after the novel is done.  I call it synopsizing because I think it sounds cool.

To write a synopsis, you'll simply sit down and open up a blank document.  And then your brain will promptly forget everything that happens in your novel and you'll be like "Uh...what does my main character do first?"  It's true.  Something about the synopsis makes you lose track of that 75,000-word beast that you spent countless hours on.  So then you'll have to check your novel again, remind yourself of the plot, and then keep moving forward.

The first sentence of your synopsis should introduce your main character, and tell a little about him/her.  I wouldn't recommend starting with any sort of teaser, or clever first line.  Just state your character's name and what they want.

The first sentence of my synopsis is "Sixteen-year-old Davi spends his life on the outskirts of society in the kingdom of Acrimor, stealing dragon eggs." Which, I suppose, would never win any awards, but it serves multiple purposes. It sets up the setting, introduces my MC, and tells what he does, hints at his story goals (which are then stated in the next sentence), and even tells a little about his personality ("outskirts of society" suggests that he is not an extrovert). Your first sentence should do the same. Set up the story. It should be compelling, but don't go overboard, either.

From there, it's easy enough, in theory. You proceed to write what happened in your novel. Everything has to be condensed, though. Many things you'll have to skip over entirely. You probably won't have room for even your subplots--just stick to the main plot. Only mention characters that are essential to the main plot.

About midway through writing your synopsis, you'll probably think of an excuse to walk away and do something better.    
"Is it madness?  IS IT?" 

And sometime later, after you've done whatever you convinced yourself was more important than this, you'll come back to the synopsis.  You'll keep plugging away at writing whatever is in your story.

If you're having trouble, my best advice is to write everything that happens in your book.  Yes, I realize that I just got done telling you NOT to write anything and keep it to the minimum, but sometimes that's hard.  What I ended up doing was write everything, and then start cutting things.  My first draft of the synopsis was 750ish words, and I took out everything that was unnecessary until it was down to 500 words.

The huge trick to writing a synopsis is that you're summing up AN ENTIRE NOVEL in just a few words.  There is absolutely no space for unneeded words.  Every single word has to pull its weight.  Actually, every word has to pull more than its weight.  Say you have a 75,000-word novel.  You're cramming it into a 500-word synopsis.  In a way, then, each word has to pull the weight of 150 words.  Which can kind of feel like this:
There's actually no CGI here.  (And no, that wasn't sarcasm.)
But wait.  There's more.  We must go deeper.  Not only does your synopsis have to tell your story with each word pulling the weight of 150 words--it also has to tell the emotional side of your story.  How do your characters grow, emotion-wise?  How do these feelings change throughout the novel?

Because, when you think about it, this emotional growth is the crux of your story.  Without it, you have an episode of MacGyver: there's a plot and lots of cool stuff happens, but in the end MacGyver is just the same old MacGyver.  He never changes, and there's no character arc throughout the story.  MacGyver is not so much a character as a vehicle through which plot twists and daring escapes are possible.  And as enjoyable as an episode might be, we want more from a novel.  So when you're writing about the latest event in your story, be sure to include your characters' reactions, motivations, and/or feelings. 

At this point, you might be thinking "How am I ever supposed to fit all that into 500ish words?"  I know.  It's hard.  You can do it, but it'll probably take several rough drafts and much frustration.  I shall now illustrate some common emotions that come from writing a synopsis:

Denial: "I don't want to do this.  Nope."

False security: "IcandothisIcandothisIcando--LOL, no."
Skepticism: "People actually do this?"
Accept fate: "It is over.  It is done."

The key to finishing your synopsis is to reveal the ending.  I know you have a really cool twist that comes at the end and you don't want to spoil it.  A synopsis is not the place to worry about spoilers.  You want editors to know about that cool reveal, because it'll get them more interested in the book.  Don't hide anything. 

When you're a published author, a synopsis is often how you sell your book before it's written.  You hand it over, saying, "This is what I want to write.  Te gusta?"  I KNOW.  It doesn't go away, even when you're published.  It's just going to keep coming back. 
If you've never written a synopsis before, a logical question to this post would be "Is it really that bad?"  Well, I'll let you decide that one for yourself.  It's definitely challenging in a different way than writing a novel.  I didn't really enjoy it all that much, though it does give some new perspective on your novel.

As in any situation involving GIFs, these GIFs are a dramatization.  Probably.  Maybe.
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  1. Awesome post. =D I wrote my synopsis before I wrote my draft. Now I'm on my third draft and the synopsis doesn't apply anymore... I'll rewrite it later. You know, when I decide to stop procrastinating it.

    And cool GIFs! =D

  2. Thanks! Yeah, stories tend to change as you write them. I know the feeling. Good luck!


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