Saturday, May 28, 2011
Tackling the Synopsis
Even though I wrote about synopses back when I was working on another manuscript, I feel like talking about them again. Why? I was tweaking mine this week, a writer buddy was working on hers, and now I have synopses on the brain.
The idea of writing a synopsis used to make my blood run cold, but I feel more confident with them nowadays. I'll tell you what helps me, and I'd appreciate hearing your tips as well! (Note: Although synopses can be various lengths, I'm most accustomed to a double-spaced, one-page synopsis. This is what I have seen asked for most often with young adult and middle grade manuscripts. Modify the tips to fit your own synopsis length.)
1. View the synopsis as a puzzle or a challenge. Boiling a novel down to one page sounds super intimidating. It's no easy task! The thing is, when I look at it like it's a puzzle, there's a piece of me that thinks it's kind of fun! Seriously. Maybe not trip to Hawaii fun or Broadway musical fun, but more along the lines of working on a crossword or jigsaw puzzle.
2. Imagine yourself sitting by a campfire and telling someone what your story is about. I mentioned this point last time, and it's the tip that helps me the most! It keeps me from getting stuck on the setup, explaining too many secondary characters, or losing myself in details. It also helps me with voice. Think of it this way: If you were to tell a story to a child, you wouldn't recite the events like bullet points. You would tell a story.
3. Limit yourself. (This could go under #2, but I think it deserves its own space.) If you try and hit too many points on your single page, your synopsis will read like a laundry list; nobody will care about your protagonist because it's difficult to invest your heart in a list. Think of flap copy and how the limited information makes you want to read the book!
4. Think in drafts. My first swing at the synopsis is never one page. I keep it brief, but I allow myself to get the story out without sweating word count. Once the bones of my story are laid out in a nice-ish summary, I edit. I search for more interesting ways to say things. I also try to think of the most concise way to write each sentence since every word is taking up valuable space. That said, I try not to let word economy kill my voice.
I write my synopsis several times. Writing a draft early on helps me see if the outline of my story is big enough. I keep old versions so I'm not timid about cutting lines or trying a new approach. I think I have fifteen drafts of the synopsis of my WIP; most have only minor tweaks between them, but some are very different.
5. Write in the present tense.
6. Tell the whole story, even the ending. Unlike the summary on the flap jacket or the back of the book, the synopsis needs to tell the entire story ("entire" meaning a summary of the beginning, middle, and ending--not every plot point).
7. Bring your synopsis to critique group. Critique partners' fresh eyes are invaluable. In fact, I think it's an awesome idea for critique partners to try and write each other's synopses. Not only is this an excellent writing exercise, but it can be very helpful! Critique partners are familiar with one another's stories, but they also have more distance from a story than its author. I sometimes think it's easier to take a shot at a critique partner's synopsis because the distance can give clarity when coming up with the parts of a story that deserve to be mentioned.
So that's my advice!
Since I hugely admire Nathan Bransford (plus his favorite color is orange = great taste), I just checked out what he had to say about synopses. Of course, a good general rule is anything he says trumps what I say. :)
What are your thoughts? Do you have tips to share?