Thursday, June 09, 2011

Synopsis Synapses

It happened again this week: I was asked to produce a synopsis for a novel I have not yet finished.

I am (fingers crossed) 50 or fewer pages from the end, and, as I have said previously, I don’t like knowing the endings of my books before I reach it. (I’m a no-surprise-for-the-writer, no-surprise-for-the-reader guy.) So, when asked for a synopsis and the first 100 pages of a novel I am currently rewriting, I went back to work, reading synopses online and e-mailing fellow writers for insights and examples. “Keep it short,” wrote one fellow writer. “I shoot for three to five pages. There’s less to criticize before reading the novel that way.”

After writing two synopses, I have learned they pose several challenges: you want to create the same level of tension a strong jacket description offers (often, they are written in present tense); you want to clearly illustrate the protagonist’s conflict(s); you want to share a little of the novel’s voice (via dialogue, if possible); you want to illustrate that you can and will resolve the central conflict in the end, yet at the same time, you do not want to give away the book’s ending.

The synopsis I completed is roughly three pages. It took nearly nine what-to-leave-in-what-to-leave-out hours. But…

Again, it was a good exercise on many levels. I teach thesis writing during the school year. “What is your paper about?” I routinely ask students. “Tell me in two sentences or less.” Likewise, writers are often asked to describe their novels by would-be readers and/or reviewers. You have to be able to encapsulate your book orally in two or three sentences. Readers aren’t looking for long-winded rambles. Your oral pitch better not present one. Condensing a 400-page story into three pages is good practice. Additionally, I didn’t offer a conclusion to the novel in my synopsis. I led the reader to the final scene(s), leaving plenty of room for me to maneuver and be the first reader to discover how the book will end.

Overall, writing the synopsis got my synapses firing. Now, it’s on to the climactic scene.

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