The synopsis beast

Until recently I never bothered with a synopsis. I figured I’d have to have something finished before I needed to give it any thought. The truth is I had no idea where to start.

But in the last year I have had to seize the bull by the horns and it has been a steep learning curve. There is a lot of information out there on how to do them, and, after a while it all started to feel like it was going to take more work than the actual writing of the novel.

So, I thought I’d share the bits I found useful. I am going to start with the first lesson I learnt. It was on the advice and tutoring of the very talented author Marianne De Pierres that I came to realise my first practice attempts were actually the blurb for the back of the book. Not even close to a synopsis.

Since that lesson I found myself facing the synopsis again over Christmas. This time for a competition. I had a word count of 500 – 1000 words.  So, I took my first draft of 76,000 words  and crunched it down to 700. I did this with the help of some previous CWA Debut Dagger winners, Jane Friedman and Marianne.

My favourites were:

Less is best – the fewer names the better. This really does apply when the synopsis is short,  two or three characters at the most or up to five or six if it is a three to four page synopsis.

Writing it without it reading like a shopping list was the hardest part. I started using this format by 2015 Debut Dagger winner Jody Sabral.

First, the inciting incident – the event that kicks the story off. (One sentence, maybe two.)

After that: what’s the challenge for the protagonist? What are they trying to achieve? And what will happen if they fail? (Another sentence or two.)

Then: what sort of experiences does the protagonist go through during the course of the plot? This is where you can generalise. … But you have to do it quickly. I covered most of the middle of the book in three or four sentences.

By this stage, if it’s a murder story, you ought to have mentioned your murderer somewhere even if you haven’t named them –  if the stakes are being progressively raised – you must include that and say how. And if the protagonist faces internal as well as external challenges –  say that too. But only in one sentence!

Author Helen Giltrow also had a great tip. Probably my favourite.

Write – Hide – Read – Revise

When I first read this I did think ‘Oh that is going to take to long’. I also thought I don’t have time. But I did it anyway. I only hid it for a night or a day at a time, and I did that over two weeks and it really made a difference. I guess the big question now is. Did I really do a good job? Only time will tell.

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