Friday, January 07, 2011

How to Write a Synopsis

Advice that really works

Like most writers, I loathe writing synopses.  I'd much rather tell my story in 100,000 words than 1,000.  While I can eventually set myself to do it, it's a long, painful process.  Last week, though, I wrote a synopsis for The Last Free City in an hour and a half.  It's not brilliant, but then I don't think a synopsis can be.

I wish I could claim all the credit, but I can't.  Instead, I synthesised two pieces of online advice which worked for me.  In case they work for you too, I like to share.  The first was from the consistently excellent Help! I Need a Publisher! blog written by Nicola Morgan.  In this post, she tackles how to prepare a synopsis for a non-linear plot structure.  Nicola observes that most of the difficulty here arises from a flawed assumption: that a synopsis must relate the story in the same way it is told in your book.  Once you realise that you can summarise the story without following the structure, the problem becomes much more manageable.

Without that realisation, I don't think the second, more comprehensive, set of advice would have been much help.  That advice is contained on Glen Strathy's blog, How to Write a Book Now.  Glen tackles the specifics of the synopsis here.  The post is too long to reproduce in full, but essentially his method boils down to:
instead of trying to summarise the whole plot at once, break it down into component parts
~ plot basics (what are the high-level main events?)
~summarise the main character's arc (how and why does he change?)
~interweave the "impact character's" role (how does the antagonist/romantic interest affect the main character's story?)
~the major relationship (describe the development of the novel's main relationship)
~draw out the main themes of the novel (optional)

Strathy's method is slightly more complicated than this suggests, but that's the heart of it.  The beauty is that, for each category, you write a few sentences, without at this stage trying to put them in order.  Strathy suggests putting them on index cards to facilitate moving them around; I used a spreadsheet to much the same effect, ending up with a 4x4 grid.  I then cut and pasted each box into a Word document in an order that made sense as a narrative.  With the words already there, that was fairly easy.  The resulting text was inevitably somewhat staccato, and repetitive in places, but that was straightforward to clean up.  At the end, I had a coherent summary of the plot and the main character's development.  Job done!

The synopsis process does force the writer to make choices.  The Last Free City has, in my mind, always been a story of political intrigue explored and reinforced by a love story; but structurally it's the other way around - a developing relationship set against a backdrop of political turmoil.  Once I've made the choice that womanising poet Todarko is the main character (although there are two other viewpoints in the book), and that Linnalitha, the unhappy wife of a scheming policitician, is the impact character, the synopsis can't play out any other way.  I could have chosen other characters with different results, but there's no question on reflection that this relationship is the structural (and emotional) core of the novel.

This synopsis is being prepared for submission to a publisher who demands no more than two sides; using Strathy's economical method I've done the job in a side and a half, leaving me a couple of paragraphs to talk about my publishing history and dredge up some favourable reviews for The Dog of the North (that didn't take long...).  Strathy's approach would work for a longer synopsis too, but it's very helpful to have a method to hand which allows me to condense (however crudely) a long and complex novel into 900 words.

If you hate writing synopses, give these links a go.


C. N. Nevets said...

Dang, Tim. That's awesome. I've not lived in dread of writing my synopses, but I think this will really charge up the process. Thanks for sharing your learning!

Eliza Graham said...

Thanks for all this very useful information, Tim.

Frances Garrood said...

Ah...the dreaded synopsis. It was high time we had another post on the subject. Thanks so much for the links, Tim.

Tim Stretton said...

I was astounded at how straightforward it made the process.

Reading the synopsis back, I can see why I had problems before. Hardly any of the book is in the synopsis: nearly every character, nearly every subplot, is gone. But then I have reduced 136,000 words to 900, so I should never have expected to keep very much!