Writing the Synopsis: Or, What Took Me So Long?

I’ve been away for a few days, and if you’ve been watching the weather reports, you know what I spent much of the day before yesterday dealing with–yes, it’s a four-letter word beginning with “S.”

I’ve also been dealing with an eight-letter word beginning with “S”: “Synopsis.” I’ve never met a writer yet who liked dealing with synopses. I’ve always believed I couldn’t write them–just didn’t get it. I’d tell what I thought was the story I’d told, only to have readers respond, “I’m totally confused.”

I faced the need to confront the demon synopsis because I’m trying to get my out-of-print suspense novels up as e-books, and I need covers. I had some ideas of my own, but my excellent and candid volunteer critics (or should I say “impressed” critics in the sense that sailors off merchant ships were once impressed into the British navy) generally agreed that I should solicit ideas from actual designers. At my university, we have students who do superb work. But could I ask students to read two fairly hefty novels between class assignments? Uh, no, not if I want to get the books up any time soon. Hence, synopses.

My first efforts were on a par with my earlier efforts. A masochistic colleague whose opinion I value actually volunteered to read the books and write the things for me. I spared him: read two hefty books between grading assignments in four (yes, four!) writing classes?!!! So he read the synopses I produced. I reproduce here the bare bones of this experience, because it was a eureka experience. For the first time, I was like, “Oh!” It’s what can happen when you have a truly good reader who is willing to tell you the truth and you are ready to listen–a crucial component, but I was desperate. They always want a synopsis. Who wants two pages to be the death of a three-hundred-page gem?

Here is the heart of what my colleague Tom O’Neal wrote for me:

For whatever this is worth, here’s my take: I read both of these and realize they are treatments/synopses of books you’ve already published, and I don’t know what role, if any, they played in securing publication. That said, the King of the Roses synopsis is easier to follow; for the Blood Lies synopsis, after getting several pages in, I felt like I needed to stop and create a list of the characters along with identity bits. Others may not have this problem, but I do. With both synopses, I have a total picture of what happens and who the actors are, but that’s all. Other than some modifiers, the characters are not rendered with details that give them color. Chris Englund’s dominant trait is his integrity, but I don’t get a sense of how the specific conflicts tear at him. Here’s the material that gives me the most insight:

Chris’s reluctant recognition of Jessica’s challenge and of his growing personal commitment to her combines with escalating threats on his life to drive him to cave in to the demands of the criminals and promise to throw the race. But he can’t live with himself for long.

Stories, plots are driven by conflict, but what propels and tempts Chris is not amplified for prospective readers; furthermore, the synopsis makes him compete with Knidos [the racehorse at the center of the story] for main character rights. The welfare of this horse, while I realize is important to the book and important to the ethical constitution of Chris’ character, it is presented as something externally compelling. I have no sense of Chris as someone who loves and respects these animals. I have no imagery, quotes or anything that connect me to Chris as a decent, rare individual, which is apparently how you want him rendered. This synopsis buries his essential properties. . . .

I guess I’m saying that less can be more if the emphases are put in the right places. I wonder what these synopses would look like if you contracted with yourself to cut them in half. Telling readers or publishers everything that happens from first page to last doesn’t seem to me to be as important as being able to find a meme that will catch or hook them, the memes that ordinary people live and compete with in daily life. Art shows us the possibilities of how those memes can be negotiated. . . . If I’m going to read a book like King of the Roses, based on knowledge of the basic conflict—a race is going to be fixed and this presents a test of the main character’s character—I’m going to want a taste of some agon or temptation or complication. . . .[I]f I were an agent or publisher reading a synopsis, I think I would want the character amplified while also knowing the plot trajectory. You’re not supplying trajectory here, you’re providing compression. . . .

I can’t help but think that the essence of character in the midst of specific features of plot would be more likely to inspire the concepts you want in a design.

I wrote back, amid a lot of other blather, “You’re telling me, more character, less plot.” Tom responded, “Yes, more character, less plot.”

As it happens, I could have gotten similar advice online, here. But I venture to say that such advice, given in general terms to generic readers, would never have had the same impact as Tom’s did. And I’m trying to imagine similar advice coming from an agent or editor providing reading services at a conference–and I’m sure I’ve received it. What struck fire here?

Not just the specific attention to an actual piece of writing; that’s essential, but you get that, more or less, from readers at conferences. I think the personal connection with someone whose views you respect does matter, but that’s not necessarily the key, because friends’ views can be accurate without being revelatory in the way this was. I think the difference may be this: Beneath my mechanical rendition, Tom saw the core of what the book tried to achieve and was able to articulate why the synopsis did not convey this core. The example of the moment where he thought he might get what he needed but ultimately did not was the “Oh!” moment: “More of this!”

The point of this post, for me, is not exactly “here’s how to write a synopsis,” though it does reinforce the best advice on that process. No, this is about teaching writing and learning to write. Too many students and indeed academics in other fields as well as experts in other fields outside of the academy believe that a good teacher should be able to “teach you how to write.” I increasingly believe that no one can do this. What a teacher can do–and it often takes long experience and sometimes a solid education in writing theory to accomplish this–is what Tom did here. A successful teacher can read well. He or she can read through to what a writer hopes to accomplish, whom the writer hopes to reach, and where the writer is in that process. A successful teacher can then articulate what stands in the way of the writer’s goal and provide options, with examples, of the moments when the text seems on the verge of finding its way. Of course, this is a negotiation; the writer can say, “That’s not quite what I wanted to achieve,” and then the conversation veers in a new direction.

I note that this is not necessarily a teacher/student relation. No, it’s a reader/writer to reader/writer relation. There are some experienced writers who can press on without such relations, but for most of us, persuading a good, responsive, honest reader to read our work is like finding a map to a treasure. Hence, this post is about a recurring theme in this blog: readers. I repeat my favorite quotation about writing:

From page 12 of Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, by neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene.  It’s from Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading, and appears as an epigraph to chapter 1:

The existence of the text is a silent existence, silent until the moment in which a reader reads it. Only when the able eye makes contact with the markings on the tablet does the text come to active life. All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.

Even if you’re a genius.



Filed under Finding literary agents for writers, Learning to write, Self-publishing, Teaching writing, Working with literary editors, Writing and teaching writing

3 responses to “Writing the Synopsis: Or, What Took Me So Long?

  1. I’ve been writing mine for four months, and after having it professionally critiqued, I’ve found it still needs work….I think it’s an art..


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