How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Writing the Synopsis First.

2016-07-17 16.01.25 Okay, let's talk about the elephant in the room, shall we?

Lots of authors hate summarizing their work and yet we have to do it all the time. Synopsis don't end at the querying stage after all.

I used to belong firmly to that camp. Honestly, the synopsis for my first novel was probably the most horrible, terrible, no good, very bad thing I've ever had to write. It took me the better part of a week and every word felt like pulling teeth.

But that was me writing a synopsis after having written the book.

Of course, it had the advantage that I already knew what happened in the book. I had written it. It also meant I had to condense a 99,000-word novel down into one single-spaced page. Susan Dennard's "How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis" on Pub Crawl was a lifesaver here--definitely check this out regardless whether you are writing a synopsis before or after writing a book. It's a brilliant and incredibly helpful.

But I found myself with the challenge of writing a synopsis before writing the book, meaning I had to mentally shift gears. Here is what helped me write two focused and concise synopses for two books in a series within a day or so with minimal teeth-pulling involved: I fully embraced Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method and adapted it to synopsis writing, so really the credit all goes to him. This is just how I applied his ideas.

Step 1: Start with a one-line pitch (or logline) first.

I also should note that I tend to do all of these steps but the final synopsis in longhand. There's just something about handwriting these that helps me focus and get it out of my system. YMMV.

Anyway, starting with a one-sentence summary as Ingermanson suggests has the advantage that you basically figure out what your book is about and a rough pitch at the same time.

Focus on your character, goal, motivation, conflict, and stakes here. Add the world if absolutely necessary:

[Character] wants to [achieve goal] because [motivation] but has to overcome [conflict] to prevent [stakes].

Bonus Step: If necessary, add a tagline after the logline you just created. Remember that unlike loglines, taglines are supposed to hook your reader  and capture the feel of your book. Taglines have the benefit that they help you market--and talk about--your book.

For example, a logline for Joss Whedon's Firefly would be: A group of space pirates takes on a series of odd jobs to keep flying--until they take on two passengers who turn out to be interstellar fugitives.

A logline for the same might be: Time for thrilling heroics. (Because Jayne is just too damn quotable not to use this.)

Step 2: Make a list of your major plot points.

For me this starts as a bulleted list. I particularly loved Ingermanson's focus on creating a five-sentence paragraph consisting of one sentence for the setup, one sentence each for three disasters, and one sentence for the ending or resolution.

It breaks your story down into four parts:

  • Setup/Hook: Introduce your main character, the world they live in and establish their goal, motivation, and conflict.
  • Disaster 1: This is the doorway of no return or the end of act I.
  • Disaster 2: This is your midpoint or the middle of act II.
  • Disaster 3: This is the end of act II that forces act III, consider working in your black moment.
  • Resolution: How does all of it end? (I actually suggest working this out first and working your way backwards to make sure everything ultimately leads to this.)

You can do the same with the seven-point story structure, adding one sentence or bullet point for the hook, plot turn 1, pinch 1, midpoint, pinch 2, plot turn 2, and the resolution.

Step 3: Connect the dots.

Literally, if, like me you ended up with a bulleted list for step 2. By the end of this step you should end up with a rough draft of your synopsis. Connect the five (or seven, if you're a seven-point person) pieces of the step before and add anything that is absolutely vital for the main plot to make sense. Avoid going into sub plots. You can touch on some tension, but again, your synopsis should provide a complete overview of your main plot only. Keep that in mind as you connect your dots.

The overall length of your rough synopsis depends on what you need. I focused on the setup, three disasters, and an ending method because I was asked for a paragraph or so synopsis, but if you are shooting for a page, the seven-point structure is your friend.

Step 4: Type your synopsis.

At this point I transition from handwriting to digital, because it allows me to polish what I have and get a better handle on overall length. I typically end up with 250-350 words just for the synopsis. I also do quite a bit of tightening and polishing here to make sure I get things like voice across as much as is practical.

Step 5: Read it out loud and have some other eyes on it.

This is crucial. And also why I'd totally owe my critique partners my first-born if I ever intended to have children. As it is, they may have to make do with cats, coffee, and eternal gratitude. I repeat: this is crucial. You may be tempted to call it good after you've polished your synopsis and made it all shiny, but you need someone else's eyes on this to ensure that your plot actually works and you don't have any loose ends gunking up the works of your plot logic.

Once you've shared it with someone else who can provide you with feedback in terms of logic, wording, and overall tightness, it's ready to kick out of the door. And yes, of course you'll add all of that to your Scrivener project, because doing otherwise would just be madness.

Again, this is just my method. It's what helped me get over my mental blockage when it comes to synopses and honestly writing them before you have an entire novel with all kinds of plots and subplots to condense was a huge help to me.

If you have any methods that are particularly helpful to you, please share!

Happy Writing!