Yesterday I talked about writing the synopsis for a novel, with an example from a hideous early synopsis I wrote for China Lake. If you want to cringe at its awfulness, click the link. Today I want to show how I revised that synopsis, and explain why writing one can help you understand your entire novel better.
To start, here’s my first revision of the synopsis’ opening paragraph.
Since Tabitha Delaney walked out on her husband, her family has been praying she’ll turn up, safe and sorry.
Funerals are tough enough when all the mourners feel sad. As Evan Delaney discovers one October day, they’re tougher when some folks celebrate the death. After a friend dies of AIDS, Evan is angered 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. She has braced herself for a week of farewells. She doesn’t know she’s getting a rude hello, to apocalyptic religion, the theft of military weapons, murder, and a violent game of keep-away with a little boy caught in the middle. She’s about to decide that whoever answers prayers these days is someone with very bad intentions.
Changes: less detail, more emotion. Fewer names to keep track of. A bit more imagery. Those are improvements. But it’s still pretty bad. It’s now too general — it reads like the thesis paragraph of a term paper. It’s too writerly. And it opens in the wrong place.
My beta reader, my generous sister-in-law, told me: “Focus on the important things. In a screenplay the structure is as follows: The setup (1st 10 pages). The inciting incident which starts the story. Plot points 1, 2, 3 send the story in a different direction. Finally resolution. When doing an outline all the above must be covered. And be very visual when you tell these essential elements.”
Taking that advice, I revised again:
Life has been kind to Evan Delaney lately. She has a novel on Santa Barbara bookshelves, cash in the bank, and the attention of her sometime lover, Jesse Blackburn. But life has also shaken her up. Though happily single, she has become temporary mom to her six-year-old nephew Luke. She took him in when his mother walked out on the family and his father, a Navy pilot, was deployed overseas. Luke is a spirited and tender kid, and she loves him like her own child. But her brother is returning to California, and Luke is going home over the upcoming Halloween weekend. She’ll be heartbroken when he leaves her.
Before then, she has another goodbye to face, the funeral for a friend who has died of AIDS.
Changes: The synopsis now starts with the setup — Evan’s life. Fewer details, more emotion. The writing is much more straightforward. And it launches the story in a way readers can easily follow.
As far as I can tell, that’s the final version of the synopsis. I wrote it before I finished the first draft of the novel. Back then the book wasn’t even called China Lake. The synopses are titled Fire Season and Flash Burn.
After I wrote it, there were a couple of twists in the tale.
First: when my agent got ready to submit the novel to publishers, I asked if he would send the synopsis along with the manuscript. He said: No. “Make them read the book. Not a summary. Give them no excuses.”
Second: though the synopsis never became a sales tool, writing it helped me understand how to structure and develop the book itself. My sister-in-law wrote:
“As I see it, the story is told through Evan, so I want to know Evan’s
motivation, and the drive that propels her to do the things she does. The setup is Evan in SB minding her own business, playing Auntie to her nephew, Luke. Life’s good, everyone’s fairly happy. Luke’s Mom vanished and his dad is deployed overseas, but Evan enjoys this motherly role.
Then the inciting incident: Luke’s Mom comes for him. This starts the story.
Evan reacts to this situation, fleeing to China Lake.
Plot Point #1 comes when Reverend Peter ends up murdered and Luke’s dad is arrested.
Plot Point #2 when Glory tells Evan of what the Remnant is really involved in.
Plot Point #3 Jesse is alive.”
Those points hit me like an anvil. Until then, I had not consciously considered the major turning points in the novel. I had written a rough draft that had all kinds of mystery, action, and suspense, but I had not thought deeply about the key events that drive the story and turn it in new directions. Once I saw what the major plot points were, I could pace the story to build up to them. I could ensure that they were major scenes, full of action and emotional consequence. I could plan how to send the narrative shooting in a clear direction afterward.
It was invaluable. And from then on, when my agent and editor asked for a synopsis or proposal, I knew how to write one. It’s still painful, but I’m glad I can do it.