Say the word synopsis to a writer and you’re likely to get a pained groan in return. You’d think that, instead of being asked to simply summarize their story, they’ve been told to run an eight-minute mile at gun point.
It might have something to do with the fact that the synopsis is so closely tied in with the process of trying to find an agent. Most everything I’ve read about the synopsis focuses on the fact that agents are likely to request one. Writers seem to view the synopsis as a hurdle, just another tool of the establishment to make the route of traditional publishing more difficult than it needs to be.
Well, I think it’s time we changed the narrative.
The Synopsis as a Tool
The synopsis is an awesome tool. Hold your groans for a moment and hear me out. It’s not about agents, or publishing. It’s about telling a good story, and a synopsis is a great way for you to test yourself. Long before you send out your query letters, before you even show your pages to your trusted beta readers, the synopsis can offer you a bit of perspective on your own writing that can be tremendously hard to come by.
Every time I get stuck on story, I find that writing a synopsis helps me to see where I’ve gone wrong. For instance, when I finished the first draft of my current novel, *cough cough* years ago, I felt like something wasn’t quite working. My gut knew something was off, but I couldn’t figure out what. In an attempt to see the basic structure I had laid out, I wrote a six-page synopsis and in that condensed form it was clear that my story was episodic, bouncing back and forth from one location to the other, replaying the same scene more or less over and over with slight variations that seemed interesting enough in the prose, but in summary seemed boring. Ug. How had I managed to write something with so little movement?
More recently, after finishing the umpteenth draft, I wrote another synopsis. While my story has improved dramatically, the process of writing the synopsis once again highlighted the areas where the plot seems motivated more by what I wanted as a writer and less by what the characters were going through. I circled those spots, and have been focusing my attention on those bits as I rewrite.
A Synopsis Just For You
To be clear, my most recent synopsis is not something I would send to an agent. The language is rough, I don’t describe my characters at all, and the formatting is atrocious. But thanks to the process, I have a really solid understanding of my story and how the twists and turns lead my reader to where I want them to be at the end. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:
- Pretend you’re talking to a friend, telling them your story as it’s written.
- Take a chunk of your story (three chapters, or twenty pages, whatever works for you) and write one paragraph describing the basic plot points.
- Forget about grammar or sentence structure. Simply write “____ happens. Because of that, so-in-so does this…”
- Don’t get bogged down in details. Remember, no one is reading this but you.
- Aim for 3-6 pages. In my experience, this is the perfect length. Any longer and you’re getting too detailed, any shorter, and you’re likely missing important plot points.
A Synopsis for Your Future Agent
While the 3-6 pages you will produce will be crappy, they will also be a great first draft for when it comes time to write a synopsis for someone other than yourself.
Have you written a synopsis? Did you write it for yourself, or for someone else? Did you learn any tricks along the way that made it easier?