The Synopsis: Nemesis or Unexpected Helper?

If you’re like me, you probably dread the synopsis. How am I supposed to boil down my wonderful, intricate novel into a few short pages? What am I supposed to do with the apparently contradictory feedback, “it’s too long” and “you didn’t tell me enough about X”? Answers to those questions elude me but to my surprise while working on my next project the synopsis went from thing of dread and scorn to a useful tool.

For those looking for thoughts on how to write a synopsis for a query or a contest, this isn’t it. Instead, let’s focus on the beginning of the project when you are staring at a blank sheet of paper, maybe with some thoughts on yellow-stickies (or if you are like me lots of OneNote pages). Where to begin? As an engineer, in years past, I’ve turned to detailed outlines: sketch out the story and story writes itself, right? That’s never really worked well for me. I tended to get lost in the minutiae; outlines can have a lot of detail and sub-clauses. They quickly become hard to keep track of and more-over, are hard to digest for the writer with little hope of getting much feedback from someone else.

So my next step was to focus on the main plot inflections (in the bridge metaphor of a novel, the piers that hold up the suspension wires) and only do a detailed outline to the first pier. Once that is reached, outline to the next pier. This is an effective technique but it has its weaknesses, namely; by not doing much detail around the later inflections/piers, it doesn’t force me to think through the end very well. I find myself getting to the piers sooner than planned and still not getting to the end of the story, meaning that much of the novel remains unplanned.

Now, you may be a pantser (aka “seat-of-the-pants” writer who just starts writing and sees where the story goes) but I’m not and if you aren’t published, I’d suggest you too give a lot more thought to where you are going. (If you are published, hey, it works for you, go for it.) So what to do?

Here’s where the synopsis can be a useful tool. Think of it as a narrative outline. You can use it as a summary of your story for the purpose of hashing out the characters and plot at a manageable level of detail and in a narrative format just like your novel. Nice thing is, since it is being used as a personal tool, you don’t have to worry about the usual restrictions on length, or even making it have a particular zing to it. It’s purpose is to help you define your novel, not sell it to some stranger.

Is a synopsis really any different from an outline? In the broadest sense, no, they both sketch out what the story is about. But in a practical sense, very much so: the outline is cold, mechanical, hard to read, generally harder to modify. Oh it seems to have lots of easily movable bits and pieces but this is a novel and plucking one plot point and moving it somewhere else may rip invisible plot strings. More importantly, an outline isn’t written like a story. There’s no narration, no flow to it.

The synopsis on the other hand may have a lot more summary and exposition than your novel but it at least uses the same basic writing techniques. It flows with equal weight to all parts of the story. That is, it is less prone to what you often find in outlines where there is too much detail in some places and not enough in others. Most importantly, you can share your synopsis with friends for some early feedback and since it is written more like a story, you are much more likely to get some useful feedback than with an outline. You may go through many synopsis drafts but that is just a 3-6 page re-write, small effort for a novel writer.

When you have a synopsis you like, you will probably find that each paragraph in the synopsis maps naturally to a chapter, making a perfect guide as you go. I can’t do it but for those folks who can write chapters out of order, this can be a big help. Whether you maintain a current synopsis as the work progress or let it get out of date is your call. Once the novel gets going you may not need the tool anymore.

Finally, as an added bonus, if you start the project with a synopsis, when it comes time to actually write one for a query, you have quite the head start. You probably can’t use your original synopsis anymore but by already summarizing the novel and using that as a guide while writing, the synopsis-for-query becomes much easier to write.

So, don’t fear the synopsis. Conquer it by making it a valuable writing tool.

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