Tag Archive | synopsis

Why do you need a synopsis?

tablettypeIn these days of Indy publishing a synopsis can seem an unnecessary burden. Why write one if you’re going to self-publish? Right?  This April I’m going to be teaching my Sexy Synopsis workshop for Outreach International Romance Writers, and here’s a few reason why every writer could use a strong synopsis right from the start.

1. A road map helps you avoid dead ends and detours. Maybe it’s different for other writers, but in every book I’ve written I get to a point where I forget what I set out to do. Lost in the woods–heck, lost in knee-high grass even. The details swamp me and I look at the story and it gets stuck. A synopsis is my tool to remember what it is I need to write next, and to get me back on the path. You don’t have to be a slave to a synopsis, but it can save you.

2. A synopsis shows your weak spots. This is really helpful. You can look at a synopsis and understand at once that the second act action is contrived, or the main character motivation is weak, or the ending fizzles. Correcting these structural errors in a synopsis can save you pages and pages of revision. I’ve known writers who had to throw out large chunks of their book–that’s never fun, and frankly I’d rather write a synopsis than face revision hell.

3. Your synopsis is the start of your marketing copy. Every book needs a blurb–a good one if it’s going to sell. If you find you don’t have a kickass opening paragraph for your synopsis, chances are you’re going to also have a rambling, weak blurb for your book. This doesn’t help you grab readers. Pitching to an agent, or an editor, or a reader is all the same thing–you need a hook and your concept locked solid. That’s where a synopsis can help you refine your idea.

4. A synopsis can be revised. Get a new idea? Check it out with a revised synopsis? Does the whole story still make sense or is the new idea pulling you in a direction that won’t work for your other characters? A synopsis lets you check your story beats, your character motivations, and also lets you check in new ideas. A synopsis should not be written in stone–you want to be able to weave in those great new ideas. But you also want to keep control of your story so you give the reader the most satisfying story possible.

5. A synopsis is vital for any series or connected books. Did you forget the name of the main character’s neighbor? What about the hero’s eye colors? Are you writing about three sisters and now you have to go back and pull out details that sister two needs in her book? For the connected books I’ve written, the synopsis becomes the most useful tool to keep me on track so I don’t have to keep reinventing worlds.

6. A synopsis will show if you really have enough conflict to carry the story. One synopsis I did ran into pages and pages due to having a lot of characters, and a lot of conflict. I soon realized I had a novel not a novella on my hands. If you can easily fit your story into a one-page synopsis you may not have enough conflict for 80,000 words. Better to find that out with your synopsis and not on page sixty where the story runs out of gas.

7. A synopsis can help an artist create a book cover for you. More than once I’ve pulled out the short scene and character information from the synopsis to create a book cover–for traditional or self-published, indy or small press, a synopsis is simply a really good marketing tool.

So, take a deep breath. It’s not that bad once you get the knack of it. And now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get a synopsis done for the book I’ve started and which now needs a better road map.

Character Arcs, Plot Lines, and the Synopsis, oh my

My synopsis workshop finished up this past April for RWA’s Outreach International Chapter, and I’ve also been judging in some contests–boy do folks need to figure out their story arc and plot lines (and character arcs, too). This is one place where a synopsis can help you because it highlights every flaw in your story–all the weaknesses come out. Which is why I think editors really ask for these things.

So what are the THREE big flaws that I’m seeing (on a regular basis)?

1) The big one is that there is no plot line or story arc. In other words, the story rambles along and stuff happens.

This usually can be traced back to the main character (your protagonist) not having a strong, clear goal that’s well motivated and which kicks off the main plot line, or the main character’s arc in a more character-driven story. This goal can be as simple as survive a night in a haunted house in order to win a million dollars (motivated by the need for that money to save mom, who is about to lose the family farm), or it can be to win a contest to win her own self respect, or it can be as big as saving the universe. But there’s a couple of important things about this:

A) The main character’s goal must matter to that character–there has to be something personal at stake.

B) There have to be consequences for failure–ones that would shatter than character.

Once these are in place, the character has been set on a path. Now you’ve started a story arc. The stuff that happens now tries to push the character off that path (this is your plot). Worse and worse stuff happens until the character gets faced with a crisis–and this crisis had better be one that pits the character against wants and needs, so that the character has to make very tough choices. This is where the character gets stripped down to their core–to what makes that person tick. (And if you don’t know this, you need to get to know your characters better.)

Now stuff does happen still but it’s all related to the character’s struggles to get what that person wants. And you make it worse for the character by layering  in what a character needs. As in if you’ve stuffed your character into a haunted house for a night, what your character may need is sanity and a sane world, and that haunted house may strip both away from her. Now your character has internal conflict–stay for the money (external want) or leave to be safe (internal need). And now you can add in an antagonist with a conflicting goal.

This is going to complicate the pl0t–and give you more conflict.

Now your antagonist needs to be thought out–as in what does she want and need?

For example, what’s your ghost’s goal in driving everyone out? This is where you do not want to cop out and go for the cliche. In other words, don’t just go for “She’s insane” or “She’s angry because she was jilted.” Those are weak motivations.

Orson Scott Card in his book on Characters & Viewpoint notes that when you’re digging for your character’s motivations, the first three or four things that pop into mind will always be cliches. (If you don’t have this book, go buy it now, then come back to read the rest of this.) These great ideas are cliche because they are cliche–they’ve been used to death. Keep digging for better motivations. This is vital for any antagonist–write this person as if this character is the hero (we’re all heroes in our own stories).

Could be the ghost is trying to protect others from the damnation that caught her–except she’s driving them mad in the process. Or maybe the ghost has a secret she’s trying to hide. Or maybe the ghost is trying to find a body she can inhabit so she can live again. (And see how those cliches creep in as you’re batting ideas around–that’s why you keep writing down ideas.)

Find out what your bad guy wants as a goal. Find out what your bad guy needs, too. We all need love, right? Well, we all need our own internal rationalization systems, too. Even someone who is mad will have their own reasons for doing what they do.

2) The other biggie I see is that in what’s supposed to be a romance, but the romance is put in like an afterthought. The action overshadows the romance, so the story doesn’t seem as if it’s really about two people struggling to build a relationship. This one is tough.

In a romance, the romance is the main plot line. It’s the main story arc. So you have to have thought about both your hero and your heroine. What does each person want from a relationship? What does each one need? This can be different from the action plot line. It could be your heroine needs to save the world from a plague of vampires–that’s the action sub-plot in a paranormal romance. The plot needs to put her in conflict with a hero (and possible love interest). It makes sense that in this case the hero is the head of the vampires–that’ll give you great conflict in both the romantic plot and the action plot. But now you have to figure out what does each person need and want on a personal level–and how are these going to conflict?

Does the heroine need a steady guy? (And what’s her reason for that–did she grow up in an unstable home?) If she needs stable, you want to either pair her up with Mr. Seems-Like-A-Bad-Risk, or with Mr. Stable-But-Boring. And then you add in what she wants. Could be your vampire fighting heroine needs a partner to watch her back–and she gets Mr. Unstable. Or could be she needs a vampire to come over to her side–so she’s got to seduce one into helping her. The trick here is to keep looking for what adds more conflict and more complexity. Pair up the compulsive clean freak with the slob (The Odd Couple is really a great romance disguised by the fact that it has two guys). Layer in reasons for your romantic pair to be attracted to each other–and layer in plenty of personality issues to drive them apart. Make the relationship the focus of the plot.

Then go back to your action sub-plot. Just remember if the main plot line or story arc is all about action, then you’ve got something other than a romance on your hands. In a romance, the relationship is at the center of the story.

3) The third big thing is that every character’s motivations needs to be clear–that means this info must make it onto the page. This is one where I often feel, as I’m reading, as if the writer knows this stuff, but it hasn’t gotten to the page.

There is the story in your head. There is the story on the page. There is the story in the reader’s head. Ideally, all these match. If one is off, the story flops. This is where you want to ask–”Did I put in WHY my character acts this way or feels this way?” In a synopsis, you simply tell the reader–”He hates cats because he was once locked in a closet with ten of them.” You want to make sure the reader understands WHY your character acts as she does.

The other part of this is make sure your reader understands the setup for the story–how the plot line or story arc kicks off. Get a friend you trust to tell the truth to read this, too, and make sure you are not fudging things. It’s too easy to think, “This is good enough.” You need outside eyes here and someone who’ll say, “This doesn’t make sense” or “I don’t believe this.” That is something to fix with stronger motivations. (You can have a character act out of character or do amazing things only if this is sufficiently motivated–if you have cake-making mom suddenly pull out a sword and behead someone there’s got to be something in her background that would explain why she can do this, or she’s doing this because her child is threatened and she’s got adrenaline making her into super-mom.)

Too often I’m reading something and all I think is “why”. Why did that happen? Why does she feel that way. The worst is when a synopsis just says: And they fall in love. Well…why? What’s different about this relationship and love story? What’s motivating the emotion. Again, this is where a friend who will write “why” all over your synopsis can help. Answer every why–or leave the reason for the question coming up out of the synopsis.

There’s other stuff you can do, but if you cover the big three, you’ll have a much stronger book (and a stronger synopsis).

What’s the Book About?

I’m doing my “Sexy Synopsis” workshop for Outreach RWA Chapter this March — link here — and the workshop always has me thinking about how most writers dread the synopsis, but it really is a great tool. The two big dreads seem to be:

1 – If I write a synopsis, I won’t want to write the book, and

2 – How can I possibly condense my great, big wonderful book into a couple of pages?

(Yes, folks, a synopsis really should be only about 2 – 3 pages — anything more and you’re talking a detailed outline, which is a different animal.)

I started calling this workshop the “sexy synopsis” since a synopsis really should be short, stylish and cover the basics — you want to sell the book. And it’s not just about selling the book to editors and agents.

You’ve got to sell your book to readers, too.

In other words, the synopsis is really just slightly longer back cover copy. It answers the basic question–what’s the book about? (And you cannot flippantly say, oh, about 200 pages.)

But how do you answer those two basic dreads?  Well, you can take the workshop, but here’s some quick easy tips.

1 – Start with the big stuff — like theme and the core conflict. Bob Mayer does a great workshop on core conflict, and he’s teaching this soon, so I recommend it highly. This will get your idea down to just a single line, meaning you’ve got a lot of the work on your synopsis done right there.

2 – Focus on only the main character and main plot.

3 – Know what’s your selling point, and make sure that’s there — as in, if the book is funny, make sure the synopsis has a light tone, too.

4 – Be sure to include the ending — this is where a synopsis is different than back cover copy. The synopsis must have the resolution so that it shows the book has a satisfactory ending.

5 – Cut extra words.

6 – Read your synopsis aloud. Preferably to a friend whose never heard this story or ideas — that will tell you if you’re telling a story that makes sense.

7 – Think of your synopsis as the “bedtime story” version of your story — hit only the ‘good parts’, but make sure you do have good parts scenes mentioned.

8 – Shorter is harder — know this is going to be work going in and you won’t be so frustrated when it takes ten drafts to get even close to anything approaching ten pages that make sense.

9 – If all else fails, tape record yourself telling the story to a friend, and make sure you set a time limit of getting the telling done in less than five minutes.

10 – Don’t take it too seriously. The book still matters more than the synopsis. But, here’s the thing, if the synopsis comes out bad or flawed or with big holes in it, time to look at your book structure. The synopsis can be an early warning that you really have not fully thought out your story — make sure you pay attention to what the synopsis tells you. It can save you lots of headaches in revisions.

Most of all, remember that a synopsis is a guide–not a bible. Leave yourself room to diverge, and leave your characters room to grow. Let the story surprise you. And if the story wants to go in a new direction, let it. You can always change the synopsis later.

Also keep in mind that if you get stuck or lost, go back to your synopsis. Sometimes those few pages can be key to guiding you out of the woods and into finishing your story.

A Sexy Synopsis

The synopsis–we all hate writing them, and yet, it’s one of the most valuable tools a writer has. And it’s not just about condensing the story–for me, it’s really more about if I have an idea for where the story is going and  a clear handle on the conflict. It’s a place where flaws shine big and bright, which means I need to fix them in the book, too. But, oh, have I written some very, very bad synopses.

What set me on the course to learn how to do a better job of this was my first synopsis. Like many writers, I just wrote. And then I heard about RWA’s Golden Heart contest. Ah, ha–a way to get to an editor faster than through a slush pile. But I needed a synopsis to enter. So I wrote one–twenty pages of details about the book. Thank heavens, this was a time when you still got feedback from this contest, and some kind soul pointed out I really needed to condense my synopsis and do a better job of just telling the story.

With that in mind–and now as a member of RWA–I set about to learn how to do a better job.

One of the best tools came to me through Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

I still reference his book when it comes to writing a new synopsis. His advice is to boil your story down to some immediate, big picture information.

  • Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of?
  • What does this person want?
  • What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?
  • What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

This was great. This allowed me to write an opening paragraph for each of my characters in the romance. The next year I went on to final in the Golden Heart–but I still wasn’t satisfied. Yes, it was progress, but it wasn’t a win and it wasn’t a sale (my ultimate goal). So I kept at it. And I kept learning. I’d go listen to anyone talk about writing a synopsis, and gradually I learned I not only needed a good synopsis, but I could use that to show me if I had weaknesses in my book (if the middle of a synopsis is vague, the real problem is probably not enough conflict to keep the story going).

I was happy with the book, and the synopsis I wrote for A Compromising Situation–and the book won the Golden Heart and sold. That was a huge win.

A Compromising Situation

The synopsis then turned into a sales tool for me. From it, I was able to pick out possible cover scenes–because I knew by then that you needed a couple of key scenes in the synopsis to show the relationship developing. I was able to help focus cover copy, and also to write promotional copy that I could use on my website.

Now I realized just how powerful–although still painful–a synopsis could be.

Here’s the opening for that synopsis for A Compromising Situation.

After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.  But can she settled for that after she falls in love with COLONEL ANDREW RICHARD DERHURST, now LORD ROTHE, a man far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer, a man who may not be able to return her love?

And here’s how it fits into Dwight Swain’s advice:

Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of:

  • After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.

What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?

  • …far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …who may not be able to return her love?

Notice the consequences are not world-ending. This was (and is) a story about people and so the consequences are deeply personal–and, for Maeve, a woman who has experienced rejection before, this type of rejection is deeply wounding. This would be a loss that would scar her.

By this point I’d learned how to stick to the main plot points in the synopsis, to focus on the conflict and the relationship since this was a romance, and I’d learned how to be very picky about each word used in the synopsis so that it was crafted to convey a tone and feel for the story (there’s no sense writing an action-packed synopsis if your story is a character study).

And I’m still learning.

Which is also why I’m still giving the synopsis workshop. Except these days a synopsis has to be even shorter, and even more able to catch someone’s interest. Which is why I call this a “sexy synopsis“. It’s got to be like a little black dress. It’s got to be something you can wear anywhere, and that’s useful as well as sexy–but it has to cover all the vital parts.

Just like the perfect little black dress,  a synopsis can take a lot of work to find all the right parts–the parts that flatter as well as fit. So if you, too struggle with your synopsis, head on over to the workshop at ORIW to pick up more tips and help for learning to get a synopsis that’s more than just something you need for writing contests and queries.