The dreaded synopsis

While writers love to write, there are two things many of us dread. Query letters and synopses.

Enough said about query letters already. See Query Shark, Evil Editor, Kristin Nelson and lots of other sites on the internet for good advice about writing them. It doesn’t make them any easier but we all know the principles, even if we struggle to write them.

As for the synopsis. Argh.

We’ve just finished writing the synopsis for a story we have completed and for another we haven’t even written yet. It was interesting to compare the two.

Dot points don’t work

We used to write the synopsis by going through the story and listing every major event. Then we’d join the dots together with words. The result was anything up to 20 pages long and it read like something out of badly written user manual. Worse, it made the book sound boring and didn’t capture the essence of the story at all.

One problem with the dot point approach is that even if you can avoid making it a clinical list, you can’t distinguish between what should be in the story and what shouldn’t.

Let’s use an example from one of our own stories. Spits Acid, Breathes Fire dot-pointed would be:

  • 18 y.o. Daniel (POV character) sees a dragon. His friend, Gibbo, can’t see it, even though it’s hanging around Gibbo
  • Two strangers do see it. They come over to ask about it
  • Strangers are a bit scary. One of them has just come out of the tank
  • Gibbo thinks they’re all joking about the dragon
  • Laird (older, POV character) sends spell after the kids so he can find them again
  • Laird goes off to meet local agent
  • Talks to agent about incident that brought him to this world and learn a bit about local culture
  • Meanwhile, Daniel keeps seeing the dragon. At school, when they’re with their friends. No-one else sees it
  • Flashback to how Laird discovers Fionulla has gone rogue. More about the tank.

This is one dot point per couple of pages so far, and it’s boring, boring, boring. Who’d want to read about it? Worse, dot points like this make you start at the start of the story, but a synopsis doesn’t usually start there, it simply has to include salient points.

In the end, even though Daniel is the main POV character, in the synopsis we told the secondary POV character’s story because that was actually the plot.

Fionulla Mees, a mage on the ruling Council of Seven, has gone rogue. Her boss, Fintain Laird, investigates. Is it a plot against the Seven, or is she targeting Laird himself? The betrayal is even more bitter because Fionulla was once Laird’s apprentice. He taught her everything he knew and sponsored her onto the council when one of the seats became vacant.

Laird follows Fionulla to Earth.

He knows he is on the right trail when he discovers a baby Federee dragon—Federee dragons are attracted to power—following two Earth younglings around.

The rest of it, the kids, the dragon, are really just colour.

Get some distance

Sherylyn usually writes our synopses. She waits at least six months since we last touched a story, then dashes off around three pages of what she remembers of it. After that I get out my metaphorical red pen (track changes in Word) and rewrite what she has written.

If we had written our synopsis for Spits Acid, Breathes Fire immediately after we had finished the novel it would have been all about Danny.

18 year-old Daniel Ciocci can see dragons. There’s one sniffing around his friend Gibbo, but Gibbo can’t see it, nor can any of their friends. The only other people who can see the dragon are two strangers.

Ho hum. It’s a bit ordinary. And it’s not even what the story is about. It’s about a woman who comes to earth to steal power so that she can kill her boss. But we didn’t see that until quite a few months after the book was done.

It’s easier to write a synopsis for a book you haven’t written

You can’t use dot points on a story you haven’t written. Not only that, if you’re writing the synopsis first you only have the big picture, not all the little details get in the way of what the story is actually about.

Thus it’s a lot easier and more fun to write.  More like a story.

But there are other issues.

If you’re pantsers like us, you often don’t know what the story is about until you’ve finished it. You definitely don’t know where it will take you.

For this synopsis—the one we just wrote—we knew where the story was going and how it got there, so it wasn’t such an issue. This made it a little more detailed than we would have liked, however; and a bit too long.

A detailed synopsis can turn into a de-facto outline, which is fine if you can write to an outline. It can also turn a potentially good story into a clinical retelling of plot points if you can’t. Then it becomes the dot-point novel driven by the synopsis.

Let’s hope we don’t fall into that trap.

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