The problem with synopses is simple: if you could have written your story in 300-500 words you would have, but you couldn't, so boiling your 70-130,000 words down feels (with apologies for mixing my metaphors) as impossible as catching a waterfall in a cup. But it can be done – and it can, actually, become a really useful tool in your tool-kit.
1) Ask yourself what your synopsis is trying to achieve. There are essentially two uses for a synopsis:
a) The "developmental synopsis" is a crucial tool, and as with any "planning" tool, it works just as well as part of your post-draft sorting out. Some writers use a synopsis to distill the novel out from their imagination and work out the engineering of the plot before they embark on the hard work of forming the story into first-draft words. Others, having several hundred pages of crazy or volcano first or later draft, use a synopsis to x-ray what they now have, tame it, and work out what it needs next.
b) The "selling synopsis" of (usually) a single-spaced page accompanies your sample chapters when they whizz off to bag an agent or a book deal - or to persuade an examiner or a prize judge of the wonderfulness of your novel-in-progress. This is also an x-ray, because its main function is to show that the engineering of your plot, the chain of cause-and-effect, actually works, and works plausibly, and the stakes rise as both the hope of success and the dread of disaster increase. But, crucially, it must still convey the emotional experience and journey of the characters, evoke what about them will make the reader care, and how the reader will hope and dread as the story unfolds.
2) Think of it as "telling a story about a story". Because a story is a chain of cause-and-effect, a synopsis helps reveal where the chain is broken or unconvincing: the sentences will be reluctant to connect up, because one event doesn't actually lead to the next in a plausible way. This is perhaps the most drastically useful, if painful, thing any "planning" tool can do for you. Thinking of the synopsis as a story in itself should also help you to infuse it with that crucial sense of the emotional arc of the characters' and therefore reader's experience. And because you're telling this story in so condensed a form, you will need to Tell a lot, and work out how to make your Telling Showy which is another skill well worth practising.
3) For a selling synopsis, start by drafting a single sentence that tells the whole story. Begin by believing that you can do it, because English sentences easily form into three parts round a substantial middle, and naturally draw the reader towards the weight at the end. (See what I did there? More on the joys and opportunities of the long sentence here.) It might help to think in terms of one of these handy reminders:
- beginning, middle, end
- beginning, muddle, end
- main character and problem, main obstacle, main pressure
Then expand that sentence into a paragraph, concentrating on fleshing out the middle-muddle, with its but and its obstacle, before the end. After that, a whole page will feel like luxury, and you'll have a handy set of a shorter blurb and an elevator pitche, ready for later.
Itchy Bitesized is a new series of short posts about all sorts of writing issues, from inspiration and process to craft, technique and the realities of the writing life. Many include links to fuller discussions of the topic elsewhere on the Itch. Click through to The Itchy Bitesized listing to browse the rest of the series.