Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wrestling the Dreaded Synopsis

"If I’d wanted to tell the story in 1000 words, I wouldn’t have written the other 93,000.” This plaintive wail is the siren song of the novelist who’s been told s/he must present an agent or other literary gatekeeper with a synopsis of their deathless prose.

Perhaps it’s easier for The Planners—those crafty folk who when they had to do a term paper back in ENG 307 began by laying out all the index cards and filling them in nice and neat, then organizing those cards into neat stacks by topic and divine inspiration, and finally produced that holy of holies: The Outline. Then and only then did they warily proceed to write that paper six weeks ahead of the deadline.

I eschewed index cards in the same way I did 8:00am classes in the days of my ill-spent youth—they were something I knew existed but never really believed in. No, I hauled out my trusty thirty-pound Smith-Corona (yes, this was back in the days when men were men and a typewriter didn't fit in your pocket) and started in on that paper at midnight the night before the damned thing was due. It was my system and it worked just fine, thank you.

But a synopsis—that’s a horse of a different feather. To boil the entire cast of characters and their intertwining story-lines and associated hopes, fears and dreams into two to three pages without making the whole thing the ultimate snore-fest. This happened, then that happened, then something else happened, and then… sorry, did I wake you?

The problem is to tell the story briefly and succinctly while keeping intact the elements of humor, intrigue, romance and adventure that make it entertaining. To make the characters seem interesting and alive when they get such short shrift that a paper doll seems lively by comparison. Uh huh…

Novelists by their very nature create and expound and string words together in brilliant combinations that make mere mortals quake with barely concealed jealousy as they think “well, if I didn't have a real job and could spend all my time writing, I could have come up with something even better”. Speaking as a writer who does indeed have a real job and has to slot in his writing time at 4:00am or on lunch breaks, good luck with that, buddy.

But the point is that writing should be easy. After all, all the words are already there, right? Shakespeare made up most of them, and the guys who did the Bible got the rest. So it’s just a matter of stringing them all together in the right order and putting in a bit of punctuation here, and there. So why should putting together a synopsis be so bloody difficult?

Well, let’s break it down into words of one syllable, shall we, and see if that helps.

a)      Syn- from the root ‘sin’, an offense against God. Ok, that makes sense.

b)      Ops-  operations or procedures. Yeah, with you so far.

c)       Is- intransitive verb used to give description or judgment of something. Right..

So put them all together, simple as a,b,c. Although not necessarily in the same order (writers have passed their poetic license test and so are allowed to do this):

Syn-ops-is:  (n.) A procedure which is an offense against God.

Ah ha!

Well, this explains a lot. Unfortunately, I've rather strayed from the main point, which interestingly enough is also why I can’t seem to write the blasted synopsis. Tangential thinking (also known as stream-of-consciousness or up the creek without a pen) is great for creative writing, but not so good for the nitty-gritty of that synopsis. No, it needs a complete easy-to-follow story arc, from that opening inciting incident that sets the protagonist on course right through to the climax and resolution where he rides off into the sunset with nary a backward glance.

Ok, ok—so maybe, just maybe, I need to get out the index cards…

Keith W. Willis
Author of fantasy novel TRAITOR KNIGHT (debuts July 2015 from Champagne Books BURST imprint).
twitter: @kilbourneknight


Liz Fountain said...

Ahhh, now I understand why the synopsis is so hard! :D
Liz Fountain

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I have found that writing the synopsis after the fact, and including snippets of dialogue, help sell the tone and story.

Then if the plot fits, maybe they will wear it.

January Bain said...

I hear you Keith! Synopsis are a pain! :) Best, January

Andrew4576 said...

I personally don’t find the synopsis that difficult. I write it after the book is written, still without the use of index cards. Encapsulization is a thing. But,I well understand the problem most writers have in this area. If you need help, hire a professional, or just peruse a lot of dust jackets.