Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Dread Synopsis

By Pat Browning

I should be writing a synopsis. I would rather be beaten with a stick.

But looking through my Synopsis file, collected over a period of several years, I found a dandy step-by-step workshop transcript from Beth Anderson, a writer who hasn’t had nearly as much attention as she deserves.

Beth lives in Chicago, and is the author of six published novels. All are standalones, from a variety of publishers.

Two of her books were nominated for the International Frankfurt Award. Two were EPPIE finalists in their e-book incarnations. Her bestselling 2003 release, SECOND GENERATION, won the 2003 AllAboutMurder Bloody Dagger Award, the 2003 Rendezvous Review Magazine Rosebud Award, and the 2003 FMAM (Futures Magazine) Fire to Fly Award.

Her first full-length novel, a Harlequin Superromance titled COUNT ON ME, was followed by ALL THAT GLITTERS (Ballantine/Ivy) and DIAMONDS (Dorchester/Leisure.) Three of her mystery/thrillers were published by Amber Quill Press—NIGHT SCOUNDS, MURDER ONLINE, and SECOND GENERATION.

She is currently polishing her seventh novel, THE SCOUTMASTER’S WIFE — a mainstream suspense thriller set in Valdez, Alaska, where she spent three months doing research.

Herewith, an excerpt from “Writing the Tight Synopsis,” Beth Anderson’s workshop presentation at Autumn Authors Affair XIV. I’m omitting the introductory remarks, explanation of what a synopsis does and doesn’t do, and common mistakes authors make, and going straight to the how-to-do-it.

SO–what does go into a synopsis?

*What happens at the beginning.
*What your lead characters want. What problem they’re each trying to solve.
*What escalating roadblocks, both external and internal, you’ve set up to prevent them from getting what they want.
*What happens at the end. How they solve their problems.

This is very basic; you can create a synopsis that you can make any length, at any time, and send to any number of agents or publishers, each in the length they’re asking for, if you just do the following things.

First -- You have to determine, in one sentence, exactly what your book is about. You can do this. You might think you can’t, but you can, because you’re the author and you’ll be asked this same question many times by people who don’t have all day to sit there and listen while you waffle around over what it’s really about.

So you need to think, really think, about exactly what this book is
about, and how you can describe it in just one sentence. Figure that

out and write it down on the top of a sheet of paper.

Second -- Write one sentence describing your beginning. If you leave out all the fluff and just describe the action, you can do this in one sentence. It’s crucial that you do this, and in only one sentence, because on a one-page synopsis, double spaced, you won’t have that many sentences to spare.

You will run across publishers who just want one page, and you’ll have to give it to them or face rejection, because if they’ve asked for one page only, you know they’re busy and don’t have time to waste. As an aside, many agents and publishers ask for one page on purpose, to eliminate the clutter I’ve been telling you about.

Third -- Write one sentence describing your ending. Just one. Most of your dramatic action will come at the end, but leave out the drama for now and just write what happens at the end, the very climax of your book.

And none of that “they both lived happily ever after” stuff. You want some real action here. Yes, you can do it in one sentence. Remember, the main action in your book will come from your lead characters. That’s all we’re concerned with at the moment, and in fact, throughout this whole one-page synopsis, that’s all we’re concerned with, period.

It’s a given that you will have secondary characters, but they’re

just window dressing, people with whom your leads interact.
If they start interacting only with each other, if every scene with
secondary characters doesn’t directly affect the lead characters
in some way, if it doesn’t advance the main story in some big way,
you need to squash that, because every word you have in this book should be in some way about solving the initial problem between your leads.

Therefore, in a very short synopsis, at the end of the story it’s your leads
that you should be concerned with, and no one else.

At this point, you’ll have three sentences.

First, you’re going to build a one-page synopsis, using these sentences as your base. Keep that first sentence describing your book at the top of the page for now so it won’t get in your way.

Now, in between your beginning and your ending, write your major points of action. What happens, action by action. Roadblock by roadblock. And only hit on the major points of action between your lead characters for now.

Having done that, you’ll have your one page bare-bones synopsis, which will
contain only the high spots of what happens between your lead characters to get them from A to Z. Save that document as, for instance, “onepage.”

Then, with the document still open, save another copy of it and call it “threepage.” That’s the next document you work with.

Start adding in more detail to fill in those three pages. If you’re anything like most people I know, you’ll be insane to start adding in the stuff I told you to cut out, but don’t do it--yet. Just start adding in a little more about the action you already have, if you have room, and more action points. More roadblocks. Only things that are really necessary, given this three-page limit. Leave out all descriptive phrases.

You’ll find, if you have enough action points and roadblock points, that you

won’t really have room for the window dressing details. You might have
room to drop in a bit about your secondary characters, but leave them out until you’re sure you have enough room in these three pages to develop them and their interaction with the leads all through the book. If you’re going into too much detail with them, think about writing their own story, but don’t let it take over this one.

Stop at three pages, and save it as “threepages.” Keep that one open and save (another copy of) it as “sixpages.” Now you’re prepared with a three-page synopsis and a one-page one. Cool, right? And you’re getting ready to expand it into six pages, aren’t you?

You’re doing this completely backwards from any way you’ve ever thought about before, and it’s working. That’s because you’re doing it logically, from the inside out.

You can do this any number of times, always remembering to save at one, three, six, eight, ten, twelve pages, however many you want, never changing the initial details that were on each page, because every time you embellish these pages into a larger synopsis, you want all of the prior details to remain the same on all copies. That way, your synopses will all say the same thing and be the same
story, except that there will be more in the longer synopses.

By the time you get to a twelve-page synopsis, which you’ll almost never be asked for, you should have a pretty good working outline there, which was built from the ground up using your bare bones synopsis, and which will definitely carry you all the way through the book.
Excerpted with Beth Anderson’s permission. You can read the entire article, along with other workshop articles, at her web site:
Note to self: What are you waiting for? Just do it!


Mark W. Danielson said...

Great article, Pat. It reminds me of the three elements of writing: an introduction, middle, and a conclusion. Ah, if only it were that simple. I'm with you -- beatings are easier to take than writing a synopsis.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Pat,

Argghhh--synopsis. I have a few queries out right now and am considering redoing my synopsis "just in case." I have been putting it off but you (and Beth) have given me momentum.


Ben Small said...

A most excellent post, Pat, one I saved for the next time I'm be-deviled by the need for a synopsis. Thank you.

Beth Terrell said...

Perfect timing, Pat. I'm working on my various synopses as well.

Thank you!