Monday, March 29, 2010

Write Your Synopsis - And Stay Sane!

How hard can it be to summarize your novel in about 700 well-chosen words? Sounds simple, eh? But as anyone who's tried it knows, those 700 words can cause terrible grief, precipitate nervous breakdowns, hair loss, and murderous mood swings—and in some cases, take longer to write than the whole 100,000-word novel did!

If there is one thing the diverse writing world agrees on, it's that being captured by headhunters is preferable to writing a synopsis. Stephen King said the best thing about success was that he'd never have to write a synopsis again.

...since most of us are a ways from being the next Stephen King, what are some ways to dull the agony and turn out something that makes agents claw each others eyes out to get their hands on the book?

A method I recently discovered is the chapter summary: take each chapter of the novel and summarize it in one or two sentences. You'll end up with about 25-40 sentences, which may not make any sense, but it'll give you an idea of the novel's skeleton. The next step is to flesh out the skeleton. This method works well for plot-heavy novels, because it forces you to get down to the core ideas of your book.

Example: (from my novel SS-5)

(chapter 1) Birthday plans. Father leaves for the army. (chapter 2) Nazis invade. Holland surrenders. Father goes missing.

...and the final version...

It's May, 1940 and war rumbles across the European countryside, yet Jan Jonkheer believes it couldn't possibly touch the safety of neutral Holland. Jan's father, who has faced the truth and knows Hitler is coming, breaks his promise to stay with his family and joins Holland's army on the eve of his son's fourteenth birthday.

Jan, betrayed and angry, wakes on his birthday morning to the crash of bombs and the drums of war. Hitler's armies have invaded Holland. Within twenty-four hours, the tiny Dutch army is conquered and Jan knows he has lost his father forever.

Another method is to use the character outline. Select the three or four characters who drive the novel, and write a paragraph for each describing who they are at the beginning, what happens to make them change, and who they become at the end. Then take a couple of paragraphs to summarize how the characters interact, the conflict and the resolution, and you're done. The character outline works particularly well for literary novels and character-driven novels where the characters are central. Randy Ingersoll, creator of the Snowflake method of novelwriting, says agents/editors love character outlines.

Example: (from my novel Through A Rain Of Fire)

Flight Lieutenant Peter Standish is the best pilot in his squadron. He's engaged to a beautiful girl, and they've planned a wonderful future. Peter thinks he is unstoppable: until the day he goes down in flames. His body burned beyond recognition, his world in ashes, Peter Standish fights to find a reason to live.

Growing up in a sheltered, loving family, Julie Knight never knew how bad life could get. Abandoned for dead after a tragic train wreck, the seventeen-year-old hides in the shadows as her city is bombed to ruins. Locked behind the prison walls of a London orphanage, alone without friends or family, she struggles for hope of survival.

One more helpful tip is not to worry about word count. (Do that while writing the synopsis and your risk of insanity triples.) Use the chapter outline or the character sketch—or something else entirely—and just write. At the end, if you're short words, you can fill with description or added information. If you're too long, set it aside for a couple of days and then cut. It's amazing how many unnecessary words we use! (Look at this blog, for example...)

A final comforting thought is that, sooner or later, you won't have to write synopses anymore. You'll either be a bestselling author – or you'll have gone insane. :)


Are you a super-synopsis-writer? What are some tricks you use? Have you ever tried the chapter outline or the character sketch?


Kate said...

Nothing posted.

Nina Hansen said...

Sorry about that - it's here now!

Kate said...


I'm ROTTEN at synopsis. :P Ruth's gonna have to write them for me or something if anything ever gets published. XD

Elisabeth said...

One thing I find challenging about synopses is how to do it without giving away something that should come as a surprise in the plot, especially if you're writing something with a mystery element. I don't know about letting publishers write your synopsis, though - I'd rather have the headache of doing it myself than seeing someone else mess it up! Agatha Christie was very upset at the way Collins advertised And Then There Were None, because they gave away just about everything except the identity of the killer!

K.M. Weiland said...

Sounds like a good method. I'm tucking it away in the memory bank (and hoping it doesn't get lost back there!). The most frustrating part about synopses is that, in order to observe such a tiny word count, all the life and personality ends up being sucked right out of the story. It's always interesting to see what a story looks like in 1-3 pages. Helps you see it more clearly sometimes.

Nina Hansen said...

It does at that! I've found writing a short blurb/synopsis BEFORE I write the novel often helps me to find the theme!

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