A new writer recently asked me if there’s any painless way to write the synopsis of a novel. Like many writers, he thinks it’s agony. How do you condense 80,000 words into one page? How can anyone? But if you’re going to send your work out into the world, it’s a skill you need.
On this topic, Jane Friedman offers solid advice:
[W]e need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.
Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.
I know this is good advice, because my first attempt at a synopsis lacked all these elements, and made the error Friedman warns against:
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a very mechanical account of your story, and won’t offer any depth or texture; it will read like a story without any emotion.
Want proof? Here’s the first paragraph of a terrible synopsis I wrote for China Lake, back before I was ever published.
A farewell turns into a violent game of keepaway for Evan Delaney and her young nephew, when the boy’s runaway mother reappears as the member of an apocalyptic religious sect. Evan, a freelance legal writer and novelist in Santa Barbara, California, has been caring for her brother’s son, six-year-old Luke. Her brother Brian, a naval aviator, has been at sea. His wife, Tabitha, abandoned the family three days before he shipped out. With Brian newly reassigned to duty at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, Evan is facing a sad week: not only giving up a child who has become like her own son, but attending the funeral of a friend who has died of AIDS. Already down, Evan is alarmed to find mourners confronted with shouts and pickets as they exit the funeral. The Remnant, a notorious religious sect, is protesting that AIDS is God’s retribution on sinners, a sign of plagues yet to descend on the earth. And more shocking than the group’s hateful behavior is that their venomous literature has been written and illustrated by the newly converted Tabitha.
It’s an overstuffed bowl of names, places, backstory, and set-up, doused in purple prose. And it went on for five more pages. I read it to my writers’ group. Some stared. Some drooled. One member threatened to stab me with a pencil unless I shut up.
So I knew I needed help. I got it from my sister-in-law, who had just attended a seminar on writing screenplays. She told me: “Too much detail, not enough images. A lot of information on what they are doing, probably too little on what they are feeling.”
It took me weeks to revise the synopsis so that it was no longer a soggy mass of details. But as I worked on it, I came to understand how to revise the novel itself.
I’ll talk about that next time.