Writing a Novel Synopsis

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There you sit with a blank page before you, that little blinking cursor taunting you, and not a damn clue what to type. Maybe you’ve written a novel, all 400 pages or so. Maybe you’ve busted through every writer’s block you’ve ever faced. Maybe writing comes as easily to you as breathing. But you’re still unable to write a synopsis.

Why? Because the synopsis requires you take all 400+ pages of that novel and condense the whole story down into one or two little pages. Maybe you thought it could be done. Maybe you thought it would be easy…

Then you found out that you can’t leave anything out – leastwise nothing important to the plot. Then you began wondering, “How vital is this scene to the plot…to the story as a whole? Can I leave it out?” If not, how else will you fit 400 pages into one?

The synopsis has been the bane of my existence for the last several weeks, possibly months. I’ve searched online for examples of well-written synopses, tips for writing a synopsis, outlines for what you should include and what you can leave out. In the end, none of this helped me at all. But I did finally manage to write my synopsis: 2 pages long. So now I’m going to tell you how I did it.

My first bit of advice is to stop looking for ways to write a synopsis. No one can tell you how to do it. All they can do is give you the same standard replies: “Break it down” “Do it step by step” “Take note of your themes and scenes and chapters and…” bluuuppffttt!

They’ll tell you to create your synopsis in pieces. They’ll say, “In the first paragraph, introduce a hook and then immediately introduce your characters. This should take no more than one paragraph.” Blah blah. First of all, isn’t it obvious you want the synopsis to be catchy from the start? If you don’t have enough sense to use a great opener, your synopsis is probably the least of your worries. Secondly, if you don’t introduce your characters at the start of your synopsis and tell us who the novel is about… well, then again, you have no good sense and your synopsis is probably the least of your worries.

And two paragraphs for this element? One paragraph to present motivation? Two paragraphs to explain the goal? Three for conflict and one for resolution, etc. etc.? No one can tell you how many paragraphs to use to tell your story through your synopsis. It’s not a diagram or a chart that you can just plug data into. This is a creative endeavor just the same as your novel.

So, how did I do it? I didn’t entirely discard the notion of “breaking it down.” Although, I didn’t necessarily go through and re-read my novel, summarizing every scene into one sentence either. Instead, I used my chapters. I have 18 chapters in my novel. In the end, I created 18 sentences: one sentence that told what happened in each chapter.

I used the BIGGEST event from each chapter to decide what that one sentence should be. For example, Chapter One might be:  “[Main Character] accidentally blows up the chemist’s workshop and destroys years of experimental data.” The chapter will undoubtedly go into detail about who the character is, where they came from, why they’re working with a chemist (or working against) and blah blah blah. But you don’t have to include all that information.

Then once you have your Chapter points, 18 points in my case, you set them down and begin to fill in some spaces between them. It may help you even more if you don’t re-read your novel and carefully notate what happens in each chapter.  This way you’ll be more apt to remember the most important parts of the book. After all, you wrote the damn book, you know what happened. If you can’t remember what minor details you wrote in, then maybe they aren’t important for the synopsis.

Does it really change the story that Davy went into the Lockerroom before his Lunch Showdown with the school bully? I’m pretty sure the confrontation is what matters, not what he did in the locker room. Unless, of course, he was getting pumped up on steroids or doing something else to help him win the fight. That is pretty important.

But really, if you can’t sit down and write a good synopsis, try a different approach. And not one that involves searching for help. I know that’s what seems the easiest, but you likely won’t find anything that will be of any use and you’ll end up right back where you started.

So instead, sit down with a friend and tell them what the story is about. “Well, I’ve got this character who’s a barber and this guy comes in to get his hair cut but he’s really a secret agent…”  When you’re done telling your friend about the book, go back and write down everything you can remember telling him. You’ve basically verbalized the synopsis you should be writing. It was natural, it gave the meat of the story, and you were comfortable telling it.

But really, you can’t wait on someone to tell you how to write the synopsis or what to include. You’ll only find the way that’s best for you by doing. You have to slog through it on your own, so go ahead and dive on in. It’s the only way it’s gonna get done. Trust me.

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Comments (1)

The Hero’s Journey | My SynonymSeptember 30th, 2009 at 12:37 PM

[…] to my “don’t search the internet for writing help” statements (made in my “Writing a Novel Synopsis” post), I stumbled upon some interesting things.  Now, let me first say that I’ve come […]

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