Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tackling the Synopsis

"You want me to sum up my novel in how many words? Oh, that's a good one!"


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.)

My tips:

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?

14 comments:

Faith Pray said...

I like the campfire idea, and your suggestion to take it in drafts. I think I tend to get a overwhelmed trying to boil everything down. Thank you for these are great tips!

Susan Fields said...

I've heard that tip before about writing your synopsis as if you're telling your story to a child. The more tangents you go off on, the more cans of worms you'll open that you'll have to explain, so just stick to the basics. Great advice, Dawn!

And I tagged you on my blog today. :)

Marsha Sigman said...

Great advice! I think I'm going to rework mine, I seriously hate it.lol

Travener said...

Good advice. I really hate writing the synopsis. How can I sum up my brilliant work in a page or two? What I did discover was that it helps to whittle, whittle, whittle away words. Just keep trimming, getting to the essentials.

Dawn Simon said...

Faith, it can be totally overwhelming! That's why I have to present it to myself as a puzzle. Mind games... ;)

Susan, so true! Thanks!

Marsha, synopses are an easy thing to hate. ;) The puzzle and campfire approaches help me so much!

Travener, I love the question about summing up your brilliant work. :) Yes, trimming and whittling to get to the essentials--good advice!

Medeia Sharif said...

Those are wonderful tips and I'll check out what Nathan has to say. I always dread synopsis writing.

Dawn Simon said...

Thanks, Medeia! I can't wait until your book comes out! :)

KLM said...

I like #2 the best because it's so true! Just tell what the story is about, fer cryin' out loud. I had such a hard time with that, but then I got over myself.

If it's any consolation, I once met an editor (socially, at a relative's party and no, I did not ask her to read my book) who also was also a writer, and she admitted, "You know, I help people write summaries and marketing materials for their novels all the time and yet when it comes to writing one for my own book, I'm stumped." So really, other people can help with this process if you let them. Sometimes we're just too close to the story and need another perspective.

Kari Marie said...

I like the campfire idea. Great tips on surviving something that's very difficult to do.

Laura Pauling said...

I'm always so glad when the synopsis is done! I follow the 1st paragraph - hook/inciting incident
2nd paragraph - up until end of Act I plot point
3rd paragraph - then up until the big mid point.
4th pragraph - dark moment/heading into climax
5th paragraph - wrap it up

It's hard b/c I always want to put more details or subplots that I think are important. But I try for one page double spaced so I can really just stick to the main plot line. I've never been asked for a longer one - yet that is.

Great post!

Dawn Simon said...

Kristen, it sounds like such a simple thing, doesn't it? But it's not! Yeah, I think a more distant perspective helps.

Thanks, Kari!

Laura, ooh, a formula! I'll have to compare it to my latest draft!

Terri Tiffany said...

Like you, I dreaded writing them but the more you write, the easier it becomes.At first I hated writing the ending and then realized, they need that part!!

Robert Guthrie said...

As you said, we should limit ourselves. Limit - love it!

Dawn Simon said...

Terri, I've heard lots of people at conferences ask if the ending should be in the synopsis.

Robert, yeah, sometimes less is more. :)