Synopsis Writing – writer’s hell or writer’s help?

At the recent Romance Writers of Australia Conference held on the Gold Coast, Belinda Byrne from Penguin was asked what she thought of a synopsis – were they important in the general scheme of things and does she even read them? Her answer to both questions was yes. There was general grumbling and I completely understand why, particularly as you do often hear that agents and editors don’t read them. But the fact is, I think many people there concentrated too much on the personal hell that is writing a synopsis and not on the benefits.

I have, in the last year, been trying to enter as many writing competitions as I can manage (see my competitions page to see how I’ve gone) and most of them (the ones run by chapters of Romance Writers of America at least) require you to write a synopsis. And of course, as these things often go, they don’t all want synopsis that are the same length. Some want them to be 1 page, or 1000 words, or 3 pages single spaced or 5 pages double spaced. So, I have been writing and re-writing synopsis until I feel like my eyes might bleed. I sometimes think I’ve spent more time researching synopsis writing and writing these synopsis than it actually took me to write the novel the synopsis is about! Yet despite the pain of this writing hell, I have come to this conclusion:

Writing a synopsis (or many varying lengths of synopsis) is helpful.

In fact, like Belinda Byrne, I don’t just think writing a synopsis is particularly helpful to a died in the wool pantser like myself, it’s essential.

Whenever I start a novel, it’s because I’ve had a persistent dream  – sometimes of a scene that keeps growing in my dreams, other times a character or two keeps speaking to me, and interacting with each other, giving me the impression they’ve got more to say, sometimes it’s just a visual, like a picture, that won’t go away. I come to a point where I have to start writing it down and see where it goes. As I’m writing, I discover my characters, the plot unwinds, scenes unfold and eventually I have a book. Sometimes, I get a reasonable idea what it is all going to be about by half way in, sometimes, I get to the end and say, ‘huh, that’s what that was about.’ I then have to go back and redraft (and seriously edit – with much help from my writing groups and critique partner because almost everything I need to know is in it at this point and readers usually don’t need to know everything I know, so a bunch of writing needs to be cut).

While doing this redraft, I’ve got to keep in mind what I know now about my characters, their journey, their all important GMC’s, the plot structure, pacing, the flow of the scenes, the reason for each scene, the inciting incident(s) – not just for the book, but to a lesser degree, in each scene – and the hooks that drive a reader to keep reading. While working on all this, I’ve got to keep my ‘voice’ and be aware of active vs passive writing and so on and so on and so on. Sometimes, trying to do all this with the entire manuscript before me in extended version state, all seems a bit much. I’ve tried writing out chapter precis, character histories, doing a time line, answering questions from the 3 Act structure workshops I’ve attended etc etc etc. Some of this helps, some of this is just time wasted, some of it just confuses the matter even further when what I need is clarity.

What helps is to write a synopsis.

In a good synopsis, you’re supposed to show the characters’ GMC’s, the plot structure, an idea of the pacing, the inciting incident and the hooks, but you have to do it in anywhere between 2-5 pages (or in some cases, 1 page.) This terrifies most writers because it can be really hard to do. Sometimes it can be impossible to do – because if you don’t have an idea of what your novel is about, then how can you sum it up? But, I assure you, you can. You just need to think of the bigger picture, rather than the miniscule detail.

Writing a synopsis makes you think about all these things, but only the most important of all these things, ie: the bigger picture. What makes its way into a synopsis are the character and plot hits, the things that keep the story moving and the character’s journeys charging forward. You don’t have to include everything in a synopsis. In actual fact, it is better if you don’t. Think about what is most important. Once this is clear, the whole novel becomes clearer. You can see the structure, the ebb and flow. You see the strengths, but more importantly, you see the weaknesses, the areas that need to be worked on, the GMC’s that aren’t strong enough to carry through the story, the fact you don’t have an inciting incident – or that you do, but it happens too far into the story – or the plot devices that aren’t connected well enough and so aren’t making sense, and so on.

The same can be said about writing a query letter or a pitch. It makes you quantify what is important and gives you the ‘high concept’ of your novel. When you have this ‘high concept’, when you know your inciting incident, your characters GMC’s and the plot ‘hits’ for pacing and structure, then writing a redraft becomes a simpler, more manageable task (at least for me.)

When writing a synopsis, I often use my critique partner and writing groups to workshop the synopsis (or pitch or query), because it is often easier for someone with a bit of distance to see with clarity the things I miss. They can help come up with the high concept, the pitch blurb, the thing that can help me make a start on writing the synopsis, or if it’s written, help me to see where I need to concentrate my efforts to make it (and the novel) better. I also have to figure out whether to include back story at the start or write chronologically (there is a mix of advice out there saying which is best – I think it completely depends on your story and the genre you are writing in. If you’re writing in a genre where there is a lot of world building, some back story/set-up, could be good. If you’re writing category romance, sticking with the main characters and plot as it is laid out in the novel is probably best.)

There are many sites on the web about how to write a good synopsis. I would suggest anyone faced with this task read a couple of them, but not too many – too much information is often more confusing than not enough. The two places I’ve found to be the most helpful are:

1)The Writers Marketplace – they have a good set of examples to help make it clearer.

2)Lisa Gardner’s website: – the section on synopsis and query letters in the writer’s toolbox tab is clear, with good examples that are easy to follow.

I have probably gone on for long enough, but I just want to make one final point. If you want to be a writer, if you want to submit to competitions and ultimately, agents and publishing houses, you are going to have to make peace with writing synopsis. They are difficult, they take time and can be as pleasant to write as pulling teeth, but they also bring clarity, not just for the judge/agent/editor who will eventually read it, but most importantly to you, the writer, who needs to know what your story is about if you ever expect anyone else to ever figure it out and enjoy it the way you meant it to be enjoyed. Or at least, that’s what I’ve discovered on my journey as a writer so far.


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