Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing Wednesday: How Not To Suck At Synopsis-Stage!

Synopsis = sucknopsis = run for cover = pestering nuisance = How do I do this????

Find yourself in one of the above definitions? Me too, as well as countless other writers out there. I don't think there's anything we dread more than having to write a synopsis.

In a way, I envy my self-publishing friends. They never have to write a synopsis for theis mss. They write the book, edit, polish, and upload. Simple. No hassle of, you guessed it - the sucknopsis!

Yet, for all of the others who go by the agent and publisher route, a synopsis is a necessary evil. I'll admit I dread having to write one. It's not just the purpose - it's more like, how do you bring a so-so thousand long story down to a few pages?

That's where we could all do well to remember some pointers about the synopsis! It's not the trauma it represents in our minds. There are ways to do it, methods to get it right, tips and pointers to keep in mind.

It's true that I never write a synop for an ms unless I really need to (understand by that, at the query process!). But I bite the bullet, and remember the following, which have come to help me in good stead over the years.

What's a synopsis, basically? The freedictionary defines it as:

A brief outline or general view, as of a subject or written work; an abstract or a summary

Pretty simple, innit? How and why do we get it 'wrong'? How and where does this process morph into the writer's personal apocalypse?

The trick is - we need to de-mystify the synopsis. Plain and simple - bring it down to its basics. Here are some tips to do that:

  • A synopsis is an outline
What does outline mean? It means the parameters of something, the limits, the edges within which that something is evolving.
What's the outline of your book/story? Don't panic and start hyperventilating when you're asked this question. Think of the broad lines of your work, its parameters, and put this all down.
Example: let's attempt an outline of the movie Mamma Mia. Heroine Sophie is about to get married, and wants to know who her father is from the 3 men who were in her mother's life at the time of her conception. She invites the 3 men to the wedding, behind her mother's back. Chaos, mayhem, and unfinished romantic business ensue when all 3 land on this little Greek island and everyone has to come to terms with who and what they've been to each other, using hit songs from Abba as their cue and expressions.
There you have it - an outline. 5 lines. You build upon this to give the plot and the resolution and you have your synopsis.

  • A synopsis 'tells' your story
This is where you take a 180-degree departure from the written-in-stone line of 'show, don't tell!' You don't get flowery in a synop - you tell it like it is. This is who they are, this is what happens to them, this is how things get complicated, and this is how things are resolved. Full stop.
Example: In Cinderella (I'll use the Disney version), the movie/story shows you the Prince coming to their house as the final house to visit in the whole kingdom. The evil stepsisters try the shoe, one even manages to push her whole foot in, but the shoe doesn't resist. And when it's time for Cinderella to try it on, the Evil Stepmother grabs the shoe and slams it on the floor, shattering it to smithereens. Everyone is crestfallen, and then Cinderella says that it doesn't matter, because she has the other shoe, which she removes from her skirt pocket. The Prince makes her try it on; the shoe fits, they fall in each other's arms, they get married and live happily ever after.
In your story, you'd show all this - the glass smashing, the expressions on their faces, etc.
In a synopsis, this would give you something like - when Cinderella tries on the shoe, it fits, and the Prince finds his Princess. A whole scene is brought down into a few words that still convey the gist of what happens.

  • A synopsis is abstract in nature
See above example - the synopsis tells that the shoe fit and the Prince found his Princess. It doesn't go into the details. 'Telling' is a concept that has a notion of 'vague' to it. Keep it pared down to the essentials - that's what a synopsis is about.

  • A synopsis is a road map
It's how the characters/plot gets from A to B to C to reach conclusion/resolution at Z. It doesn't talk about the quaint little inn you find between M & N, or how the beauty of the countryside is breathtaking during the journey it takes to get from R to S.
A synopsis 'leaps' from A to B to C, etc. If there is something you have to mention happening between A and B, then that something is a point on your road map, and should've been labelled B instead.

  • A synopsis has its own structure
It doesn't follow the same rules of disclosure as the ms. Backstory, the necessary and relevant parts of it, is stated right up in a synopsis, not distilled throughout like in the ms. You don't keep suspense in a synop, like in an ms. The synopsis tells your story from A to B to C and so on - you lay it down as it happens.
Example: In Mamma Mia, we find out halfway through (around the Chiquitita part) what relationship Donna had with each of the 3 men. That gives suspense, a sense of hanging on the edge of our seats to figure out what it is all about.
Writing the synopsis though, at the paragraph where you mention Donna, you'll already mention how and why she was involved with all 3. You don't disclose this at the halfway mark.

  • A synopsis is not a blow-by-blow account
It's not about 'this happens, and that happens, and then this takes place because of...'. There should be cohesion, logic, a constant thread holding your story together in a synopsis. A synopsis skims the basics, the surface if you want, of the plot. It doesn't go deep into anything that doesn't contribute to the A to B to C journey.
Example: Cinderella again. The final shoe and proposal scene - it is brought down to a simple 'the shoe fit and the Prince knows he's found his Princess. They marry and live happily ever after.' Your synopsis tells it like it is - it doesn't chronicle every happening in the book/scene.

  • A synopsis lays it down without any fluff
Cinderella example again. There's nothing extravagant about the description of that last, crucial, scene of the resolution. It is completely pared down. It's how things happen, how you get through the conflict to the resolution, without getting into the details.

  • A synopsis is the bare bones' skeleton of your story.
Full stop. A to B to C through to Z.

If you keep these definitions/pointers in mind, you should be able to whittle down your story into a concise and coherent whole.

Is there a 'formula' for writing a synop? Actually, there might be, and I have found one that works very well with paring down my story yet without taking away any of the gist of my plot.

I'll share that with you next week, along with the example of one of my synops that won me publisher notice and approval. Same spot, same day - we'll take the synopsis apart and find out why it works and how this happens, all within the scope of the synopsis formula.

Join me then too, and if you have any questions or pointers to add to the discussion here, feel free to pop up in the comments.

From Mauritius with love,



JoAnne Kenrick said...

Nice post... half my problem with the synopsis is telling, not showing, the story in that A to Z plot outline. But I get there, after tons of re-writes :) Look forward to next weeks post, maybe you'll have a tip to help me get through my weak points without a zillion edits.

Thanks, Zee! Synopsis hell awaits me, it's just around the corner. I'm almost finished with a WIP. And the blank, titled synopsis page keeps laughing at me, reminding me that it's up next. LOL

LM Spangler said...


Excellent advice. Can't wait for next week's post.


Anonymous said...

I know of no author who does not struggle with the synopsis on some level. Great insights here!

Zee Monodee said...

Hey Joanne

Nice to see you on here! Lol, of course a synopsis takes rewrites. What matters is that you get it done, in the end.

I think, and hope, next week's post will help. It's been like an 'Aha!' moment to me and that keeps me going when I look at that blank page with the header reading 'synopsis'.

You'll do great for your synop. Half the battle won is knowing you WILL tackle the darn thing. :)


Zee Monodee said...

Thank you, Lynn!

I can't wait for next week either, lol. :)


Zee Monodee said...

Hi Kay

Glad if the tips could help. Synopsis writing is indeed writer hell.

Cheers & hugs

Author GE Stills said...

I hate synops. I'm happy to see that I'm not the only one. What can I say, other than misery loves company. lol Looking forward to your pointers next week.

Anonymous said...

Hi Zee! I followed you here from Ash's blog, and I'm so glad I did! I plan to bookmark this entry and use it to help me when the time comes to write my next suck-- excuse me, synopsis. :) Thanks!

Zee Monodee said...

Hey GE
Good to see you around here! Lol, yeah, misery indeed loves company. I think it's an epidemic - the allergy to synopses in the writing world. :)

Zee Monodee said...

Hi Michelle
Nice to meet ya! Glad if my post could help. That's my aim, to help even one single person out there. :)
I hope you'll tune in next week too. I'll build upon those pointers with a concrete example.
Cheers & hugs

Brenda said...

Zee, you are wonderful!! This post couldn't have come at a better time! I'm in the middle of writing my synopsis, and I'm having trouble, lol. Thank you for this, and I can hardly wait for your next post!

Martha Ramirez said...

Awesome post, Zee. Keep up the good work.

Zee Monodee said...

You're most welcome, lady! :) Might've been a cosmic coincidence, lol, but I'm glad if I could help, even a teeny tiny bit.

Zee Monodee said...

Thanks Mart!