Thursday, July 30, 2009

Death By Synopsis

So much work to do, and that counter keeps ticking down, down, down. So, the task of the day is to continue to fine-tune proposals. Tabitha asked yesterday about my process of writing a synopsis.

When I first started out writing, I was a complete SOTP writer, so writing a synopsis wasn't that hard. Write the book, then summarize what happened. :) Easy-peasy. Especially if using a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, which you need if you're going to sell to Barbour Heartsong. (Each publishing house is different. Some want a ch-by-ch synop. some want two pages, single-spaced, some want a ten page synopsis. Be sure to check the guidelines of the house you're targeting, and show the editor how well you can take direction by STICKING TO THE GUIDELINES. -- sorry about shouting, but this is important.)

After writing a few wandering first drafts that needed a lot of revision to be cohesive, I realized that I needed to be more deliberate about my writing, more efficient, and more focused. Enter the plot board and outline PRE-writing. This is more difficult for me, requiring a lot more linear thinking, and questioning. Instead of getting to know my characters in the first twenty to thirty pages of a novel, I am having to learn them up front.

So, my method of synopsis writing?

It involves a few steps, and moving forward, backward, sideways and all around these steps until I feel I have a solid story that hangs together before I ever start writing the story or the synopsis. Often these steps live in my head for awhile, and I do some preliminary research on the setting/occupation of the character, etc. There are a few basic things I need to know before I think about writing a synopsis for a story.

  • A hero. For some reason the hero usually comes first to me in a story. I like strong, stubborn men of principles. (who doesn't, right?)
  • A heroine. I try to decided who is the last person the hero would fall for, and create her as the perfect helpmeet for him once they settle their differences. After all, I write romance. :)
  • A setting. I like to use either places I've been, or places that I can easily research from my local library. I use the Internet for basic searches, but I prefer to have actual history books, travel guides, and biographies (and that extra gold mine of period newspapers) to work from. I write historicals, so setting is uber-important to me.
  • A crisis. Sometimes I take these from historical events. But it needs to be dangerous, compelling, and urgent. Life or death is always good. :)
I knead, pummel, and stretch these ideas, talking them out with my daughter, composting and turning them until I think they will mesh into an enjoyable story. Then out comes the plot board and the post-its. Things get worked and reworked as I plot the story. Then I write a synopsis. Actually, I write two.
I like to use the five paragraph essay as a framework for a synopsis for a proposal.
  • Paragraph 1: Give the setting, time period, title, overall tone of the book.
  • Paragraph 2: Introduce the main characters and what they want, why they want it, and why they can't have it.
  • Paragraph 3: Give the main obstacles to a happy ending. These are your major plot points. And this is where you mention that unique twist in the middle of the book that keeps your plot from fizzling into dampness halfway through the book.
  • Paragraph 4: The point of no return, all hope is lost, black moment of the book, and how the hero/heroine overcomes the impossible to save the day.
  • Paragraph 5: Bring home the spiritual lesson learned, the truth revealed, the happily-ever-after conclusion to the story.
This is a my synopsis in its simplest form, short, sweet, and containing all the elements an editor would like to know.
Then, for myself, I write out a second, working synopsis, using the post-its and plot board. I type out a rough, chapter-by-chapter synopsis to guide me as I write. With each scene I put in the working synopsis, I include the character's goal for the scene, the major conflict (and its source) and the story goal, just to make sure I stay on track with what I want to show in a scene. I've found lately that if I'm stuck on a scene, it's because I haven't loaded enough conflict into it.
So, how do you write a synopsis? Do you differentiate between a working synopsis and a proposal synopsis?


  1. This is very helpful, Erica. I'm working on one right now and will use your five paragraph layout to start with. I need a two-page single spaced one, so I think I'm going to need a few more than five paragraphs. Paragraph 3 could be divided up lots though, I think, for my purposes.

  2. Very good outline, Erica! I like the five points and how you break it down into the basics of what must be included. I think it's essential that we write it with the idea of "hooking" the editor. So we need to craft it in such a way that does more than summarize. It sells it.

    Thanks for sharing the outline! It's definitely going on one of my notecards for future reference.

  3. I'm book marking this page. I hate writing synopses, but this is a great outline.

    I prefer death my chocolate, by the way. :)

  4. Thanks for showing us your step-by-step process. I haven't written a synopsis in awhile and I know I'm going to have to again one day. I'm definitely going to look at these steps again to help me when I start. Thanks!

  5. I like how you think, Erica.

    This post is a keeper :-)

  6. I agree with Katie. Death by chocolate is way better (-;

  7. very timely advice, erica. katie directed me to your page in particular about the synopsis b/c i'm tweaking mine. thanks for being so helpful!

  8. Very helpful. thank you. I will try this...maybe then I won't suffer death by synopsis. :)

  9. Great tips! I'm going to print this out to use the next time I'm forcing my way through a synopsis. I always found doing the GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) charting before I began doing the synopsis really helped.