The dreaded synopsis

Apologies if this blog seems a bit rushed. I almost forgot to write it this week due to being ensconced in the bubble of a writing retreat at Anglesea for the week with another writer friend and two hounds. We’ve had the usual all seasons that the southern coast is famous for. On Sunday it was thirty degrees, today it’s fifteen and raining and the wood fire is burning. As I write I can hear the sounds of tapping keyboards, the crackle of the fire and the sweet sound of dogs snoring in satisfaction after their morning run on the beach.

Writers dog

At almost 65,000 words into the current draft of my work in progress (WIP) I have spent much of this week knee deep in writing a dreaded synopsis. Most writers hate this exercise – and I am no exception, but do think it’s a good activity that can improve your story. I have done it several times throughout writing my WIP and will continue to revisit it as work progresses.

I find crafting log lines, a premise and synopsis of varying lengths are a terrific mechanism to focus my writing and test the dramatic arc of the story. What is written might change a little each time I do these exercises, or the process itself may cause my story to shift and change when I notice issues or logical gaps emerge.

Do you work on your synopsis as you progress your WIP?

Following is an outline of the process I use. I start by summarizing the turning points of my WIP. These are the main beats where the story turns in a new direction as a result of some dilemma faced by the protagonist. It helps to focus on the key elements of the plot and/or character arc that I will build into the synopsis. I write the summaries in the following format:

At the start of each Turning Point, the character has xxxx problem, are feeling yyyy and they are trying to achieve zzzz goal, however when aaaa complication happens, they feel bbbb and now want ccccc. (cccc is the payoff for what has happened and it raises the desire for the next turning point).

Looking for the plot

This is a useful formula for summarising turning points, chapters and scenes as well. Here’s an example:

When Jane meets the local eccentric she is afraid (feeling) and tries to get away from him (problem) and find out whether he is dangerous (desire). However when he keeps turning up at her house (complication) and she befriends him (motivation shift) and then finds him dead on the beach, she realizes he has been murdered and wants to find out what happened (new desire – to solve the murder mystery).

The second task is to write a log line. A log line is a tight, approximately twenty-five-word summary framed as a ‘what if?’ that captures the protagonist’s predicament and conflict and aims to hook the reader. I might write many of these, then select the one I think fits best. The most recent version of the log line for my WIP is:

What if a private investigator uncovered a political scandal linked to a closed murder investigation, became infatuated with a witness, then suspected her lover could be the killer?

Going deep

Next I write a short premise (also around twenty-five words) that helps clarify the dramatic logic of the story. The premises is the promise of the story which, if borne out is proven by the narrative. Then I can say the story achieved what it set out to do. An example is: By abandoning her personal and professional rules a woman learns the importance of living according to her authentic self.

My next step is to write four varying length synopsis – in one sentence, one paragraph, one page and then an expanded 3-5-page version. The one liner identifies the central character, the story problem, the overall theme and the central driving force for the main character. I might brainstorm a number of these and select the one I most like. For example:

After a private investigator is convinced to revisit a closed murder investigation she finds herself having to break the law to save herself and ensure justice is served.

Losing the plot

When you expand the synopsis to a paragraph it brings in other central characters and explains what binds the central characters together, what drives the protagonist forward, and also reveals the climax and the lessons learned in the story.

 The long synopsis (3-5 pages) draws out the central story line and characters and includes all the detail that may be obvious to you, but not someone unfamiliar with your novel. It reveals the narrative arc and is an explanation of the problem/plot and characters, their actions and motivations. The long synopsis summarizes what happens, how the characters feel about it and how they change through the story. It reveals pace, motivations…and the ending. It is written in third person active voice and has elements that show your unique point of view.

Recovering from the plot

After I have written a draft I let it rest for a day or so then edit it. The edit involves going through to check that I haven’t included too many characters or events or plot details. I aim to have just enough to intrigue the reader and show my writing voice. Every word has to count so I try to strip out unnecessary detail, descriptions and explanations.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not and it can be a painful process, but well worth the effort. When I’ve finished I take the dog for another walk to clear my head.

How do you develop your synopsis?

Main image: Anglesea River, Coogoorah wetlands

2 thoughts on “The dreaded synopsis

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