I don’t mind writing synopses. In fact, I find writing synopses helpful.
If you write long-form fiction, you probably just said aloud, “That’s crazy.” If you don’t write fiction…this post might be confusing.
A little background: a synopsis is a short summary of what happens in a book. Not like a blurb (e.g., what you read on the back of the book), a synopsis runs through the major action and the beats of characterization. Synopses tend to be between 3 to 5 double-spaced pages in length, though I’ve heard they need to be longer if you’re pitching a project you haven’t written yet. You need a synopsis for contests, pitches, and queries and also when you turn in a manuscript.
Suffice it to say most writers rank writing synopses only slightly below getting a root canal on lists of their least favorite things to do. How do you take a 250 – 300 page book and reduce it to approximately 1000 words? If your beautiful plot could be condensed, wouldn’t you have condensed it in the first place?
To be clear, I don’t find writing synopses easy. But as a pantser (someone who writes without a clear plan of where I’m going), putting together a synopsis gives me a different–and constructive–point of view about my project.
With the book I finished last month, I knew I had a problem with the hero’s arc. I don’t want to get into details, but he had a goal motivation conflict problem. (GMC is essentially, “Character wants X because of Y but Z.”) He wanted the heroine but it wasn’t clear why he couldn’t have her. Quirks of both their personalities, yes, but once that stuff was addressed–and it seemed like it could be pretty easily–then what?
From almost the start, my critique partner had been telling me that his arc needed work but I didn’t know how to fix it. Then, when I was about 85% of the way done with the book, I sat down to write an initial treatment of the synopsis. And when I did that, the holes screamed from the page.
Once I had a synopsis I could see exactly where I need to fix the plot and exactly how to fix it. I needed to tweak his backstory, I needed to give him an external conflict, and I needed to give him something to want besides the heroine–something that would force him to make choice during his pursuit of her.
As I worked through my first draft with my synopsis in hand, the fixes almost wrote themselves.
There are of course writers who essentially write the synopsis first: planners. I’ve read numerous books about craft that describe how to write in this way and it sounds truly lovely, but I have tried it and it is not for me.
For me, a character introduces himself or herself. First as a sort of shadowy outline before rolling around in the back of my mind for a while. Eventually I start listening to his thoughts.
If you’re not a writer, this is probably the part where you say aloud, “That’s crazy.”
As I go through my life, I begin to wonder, “What would she do in this situation? Why?” I sketch out a backstory. I start to put together a playlist for the project. Songs that reflect the personality and moods of the character and the world she inhabits. Then I meet the other people in the world and scenes form themselves. Eventually, I become confident about these scenes, so I start writing them down.
I do not write in order. For the book I just finished, I wrote the first kiss first. Whenever I was doubting the project, I’d read that scene. Knowing the chemistry the characters had and understanding the romantic plot led me through everything else.
Once I have some major beats on paper, I connect the dots. When I’m mostly finished, I write the synopsis and I use it to fix what I have.
I don’t know that this process would work for anyone but me. I don’t know that I would advocate it in a classroom, but I have used it to write four books and to start two others.
It may be possible to find a middle ground in the pantser/planner wars and to use the best of both. For me, it was achievable by giving up hating the synopsis and seeing what it could do for me.
It turned out the answer was quite a lot.