Surviving a PhD (or MPhil) Viva: how to finish your degree in style
All the posts I mentioned at the Historical Novel Society Conference 2016

Please don't hate me for loving synopses

The other day, without so much as a gun to my head, I willingly wrote a synopsis. Since synopses are, famously, at best a chore, at worst a nightmare, it was with mock-contrition that I murmured on Facebook that - sorry, hate me now, but ... I actually really enjoy writing them. The first ten comments were un-re-printable, but then my fellow synopsis-lovers cautiously put their heads above the parapet to agree with me. In the end there were ten or so of them, too, and we agreed, trying not to sound smug, that they can also be extremely useful tools for developing your own work.

I do understand and feel the agony too - a synopsis feels like a make-or-break piece, but by definition can't be really good writing - and I've blogged about how to write the synopsis which accompanies the chapters you're sending to an agent or a publisher. I think of this kind as a "selling synopsis" which I described in that post as

for showing the big bones of your story: that the main characters' problem is urgent and compelling; that the stakes are raised steadily through the novel; that the engineering of cause-and-effect works; that the end is satisfying. In other words, you're showing that the plot-route is a good one, but also conveying what will make the reader care about the story-journey.

For the difference between plot and story, click here. Obviously, having to do all that in a single-spaced page (a page-and-a half if you must) is an excellent craft exercise in itself: you can't spare many words from telling the action of the plot to evoke the drama of the characters, but that's what you've got to do. And "telling" is the operative word here: you will be Telling a lot, but making it as Showy as possible. 

Then there's what I think of as a "developmental synopsis", which essentially you're writing for yourself. Here, I'd suggest, you really get to lay out the chain of cause and effect. If there's a sub-plot which weaves in and out, you don't have to suppress it as ruthlessly as you do in a selling synopsis; indeed, one of the most important functions of this kind of synopsis is, exactly, to make sure that all the chains of cause-and-effect do actually hitch up together. I once planned a novel in some detail, then started writing, and at 30,000 words I paused to take stock and refuel by writing a long synopsis ... and discovered that the events I'd planned so thoroughly for the second half didn't actually lead one to the next at all. I'd used a grid and all sorts of mind-maps and notes to plan, but none of them had revealed this rather disastrous state of affairs. Only when I had to write whole sentences of narrative which did, by their nature, lead one to the next, did it become starkly obvious: I would get to a full stop and ... there there was no "next", "because" or "therefore" waiting to be written. 

Of course a developmental synopsis can be as long as you like: it can be useful to think in terms of a film "treatment", because a treatment is, essentially, a stand-in for the experience of the film that doesn't yet exist, as a script can't really be. As you know, the secret of narrative drive is to understand that the ship is always trying to get somewhere, so this kind of synopsis becomes a working-out, for yourself, of the overall shape and stages of the voyage. And if you want to - again, as in a film treatment - you could start with a cast-list, summing up your most important characters in a couple of lines.. 

Of course, with the developmental synopsis there's no slushpile reader to worry about annoying, but do resist the temptation to let your pen run away with you: if it's more than, say, five to seven double-spaced pages, then you'll be losing the benefit of doing it.

Which is? Well, it's incredibly good for you to have to clarify the basic colours and shapes of your characters and the main drives and structures of the story by focusing on those and ignoring the detail in which they're embodied. In a funny way, it's a bit like an artist who routinely turns their picture upside-down, to study the composition without being distracted by what it represents - or the artist who stands way back, across the room, till they can see only the main building-blocks of the image, and judge them. 

And that's a clue, I'd suggest, to one way to discover the uses and satisfactions of synopsis-writing: you're not trying to shrink the narrative of your novel, you're telling a story about that narrative. Indeed, a friend likens writing synopses to writing flash fiction: this is a very short story. And storytelling is your chief job and chief professional skill, so why not enjoy this brief, exercising your craft on the prose and structure of a short story, which just happens to be about a long story?

To finish, some tips for making synopsis-writing useful and - dare I say it? - even fun: 

1) At bottom, you probably hate exercising your craft on synopses because everyone's bones do look rather like everyone else's, and none of us like such mementos mori. But remember that the novel is still there: this is just an X-ray for diagnostic purposes. With experience, you do learn to look at a synopsis and, while seeing only the bones, mentally clothe them in a sense of the flesh, face and personality of the novel itself.

2) Think about when the process of writing developmental synopsis might be most useful to you:

  1. Some writers do it after the planning, but before they start the first draft.
  2. I often do one at the classic 30k mark: take stock, refuel, and clarify how I'm going to build the rest of the bridge.
  3. Later, if you get stuck on a big scene which you can't get right, chances are you don't really have a firm grasp of how that chunk of story should be driving forward to link onwards to the next: and so you don't know where this scene should be heading. A synopsis will help you to step back to consider the whole narrative drive.
  4. Or it might be useful after you've done your finding-out-what-this-is first draft, to focus and clarify things before you embark on the second draft.
  5. Or later still, as first step towards writing the shorter, selling synopsis?

3) Don't spend paragraphs on the set-up and back-story of the novel, however much time you spent developing it for yourself: it's not the dramatic action of the novel, only the context and reasons for the action, and novels are built of characters-in-interaction, not reasons and contexts. Work hard at boiling it down to the bare mininum, so the beginning of the synopsis reflects the structure of the beginning of the novel. 

4) Don't spend ages on the non-fiction appeal of the story, whether it's history or politics or psychology: that's inherent in the actual story, but it isn't the story.

5) Don't forget that the job of a synopsis is to convey the arc of change, which means focusing on how that change comes about, and what the crucial high (and grimly low) points are, when change happens. Work hard to convey just how critical those big moments are, and cut away as much of the lead-in and lead-out as you can while still showing how the big moments arise and play out.

6) Don't work with the text of the novel in front of you. Your memory works very well to sieve out the big, important things and let the rest fall away.

7) Don't let this story-of-the-story peter out: try to keep the proportions of text-to-story consistent, reflecting the proportions of the actual novel. If you haven't finished a first draft yet, it'll mean boiling down the early, fully-imagined, already-written part, which is a good exercise. And it'll mean boiling up the the later, unwritten part, pushing your imagination to develop it more, which is a good exercise too. Win-win, you could say.

8) Keep an eagle ear open for ideas as they swim up. You'll find that, as you try to tell this story about your story, that your creative brain is alive and well and producing stuff for the novel. But don't, whatever you do, get sucked back into fiddling with the novel. Make a note and keep going. Or you could even, dare I say it, incorporate that fantastic new plot-twist or brilliant, re-conceived ending into this synopsis, as way of making sure it does actually work.

9) Remember long sentences, as they're a much more fluent and economical way of conveying how the links of cause-and-effect among your characters-in-action, and how the reader's actually lead along the chain. And use semi-colons and colons to convey connections, because they're more economical still; if you're a bit wobbly on punctuation, click here for an excellent set of explanations and a bit of practice.

10) Remember my best writing tip of all: "First draft for yourself, second draft for your reader, third draft for your agent." Reading for "agent", "the person you need to persuade", it applies to the process of writing synopses too.

Good luck!