The pure hell of writing a synopsis

About writing

Writer's Block - Mo FanningWho enjoys writing a plot summary – better known in publishing circles as a synopsis?

Nobody, right?

To any non-writer, this aversion probably sounds weird. Indulgent even. Like now you’ve written all those words, and it’s an insult to reduce your art to a few paragraphs. Like it or not, at some stage – if you’re serious about being published – someone will ask for a synopsis.

As documents go, it serves a key purpose. It proves you know how to tell a story. You could turn in 5000 perfectly polished words with great characters and dripping with intrigue. What happens after that?

A synopsis proves that you’re no flash in the pan. It demonstrates that the story that follows delivers on early promise. If you can write 5000 words and show that you also have a story to tell, you’re worth a look.

Frustrated writers like to pick apart the work of best-selling authors (JK Rowling anyone?). They ask how did he or she get published, let alone sell so many books? The answer lies not (just) in the writing – which can always be fixed by a decent edit. It lies in the ability to tell a story. Nobody really recommends that beautifully written book that they never quite finished.

But like I say, nobody likes writing a synopsis. How about if I told you it could actually help you create a better book?

Using a synopsis to guide your edit

When you finally type ‘the end’, that’s when you should start work on a synopsis. Used right, it’s a tool that helps edit your work.

There are two types of edit. The copy edit and the structural edit.

Copy editing is easy. In theory. You read through and fix the typos, smooth the dialogue, wipe out your writing tics.

A structural edit is harder. Good editors charge big money to do this. It’s a task that what most beginning writers neglect.

This is when you should ask key questions. Do events flow? Does a person age six years between chapters? Is it spring one minute, winter the next?

Writing a synopsis is a great way to tackle this crucial edit.

Instead of agonising over every sentence , read your work in progress. Work through each chapter, and write one or two sentences that sum up what happened in each. When you’re done, you have the bones of your book. That’s when you can ask yourself if the story works. Is it worth telling? Are there gaps? Could you flesh stuff out? Could you lose a sub plot? Is it the story you thought you were telling?

Fix your story and update the rough synopsis. And then – just as you should with the novel itself – close the file. Don’t even peep at it again for a few weeks.

When you come back to this rough synopsis, treat it like you’re correcting someone else’s work. Make it read better. Distill the story, cut out any talk of sub plots or minor characters.

Before you know it, you have a killer synopsis for a tightly plotted novel – and that awful task is behind you.

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