Six impossible things

Synopsis, part 1

I’m going to pretend that this blog entry was delayed by the Labor Day Holiday on Monday. Which it sort of was; I lost track of “Wednesday, time for blog post” because my week started a day late. So mea culpa.

Anyway, today I’m going to talk about synopses. There are two major things to remember about the synopsis, aka plot outline, that you include in your portion-and-outline submission to an editor or agent. Let’s start with the two big ones:

  1. There are two types of synopsis/plot outline. Only one goes to an editor or agent.

Writers who use a plot outline as part of their writing process often treat it as a rough draft for the synopsis they’re going to send to the editor. This is a bit like strapping on your cross-country skis and jumping in a lake to go water skiing. It isn’t going to work. At all. Yes, they’re both called “skis” and the shape is roughly the same, but the weight, the width, the curve, the way it fits your foot, and countless other details are all very different because the purpose of the ski is different and the problems that a water-skier is likely to face are very different from the ones a cross-country skier is likely to face.

The plot outline one uses as part of one’s writing process is meant to help the writer write the story. The plot outline one sends to an editor as part of a portion-and-outline is meant to help sell the story. Writing is not the same as selling. A document that is optimized for writing is not likely to be a lot of help with the selling part, and vice versa.

Writers who don’t use a plot outline sometimes fall into this trap anyway. When they start their submission outline, they try to write the sort of synopsis they think they would write if they did use one as part of their process … and since they don’t normally use one, it’s not a particularly coherent job. They then try to use this mediocre example of a writing outline as their submission outline, which starts them off with two strikes.

This brings me to the question of what does go into a submission outline, and the second major point about this sort of outline:

  1. The synopsis you send to an editor or agent is not just a shorter version of the story.

This ought to be obvious. You can’t take 100,000+ words of plot and background and characterization and boil it all down into five to ten pages without leaving out a lot. (If you can, you should probably be writing short stories, not novels.) Enough folks make this mistake, though, that it is pretty clearly not as obvious as it ought to be.

Furthermore, the structure, pacing, and above all purpose of this five-to-ten-page summary is not the same as that of the story. Yet over and over I see people starting with the novel they’ve written and applying the same structure, pacing, and plot to their summaries. Some examples:

Structure: The novel is written in alternating chapters, one set in the present, the next set in the past. The summary follows the same structure, one paragraph for each time, complete with cliffhangers. This makes it practically impossible to follow (what is quite clear in a twenty-page chapter can be immensely muddy in a four-sentence paragraph). Trying to keep the cliffhangers (and then resolve them two paragraphs later) adds unnecessary length to the synopsis, as does the necessary rigid paragraph-per-chapter structure.

Backstory: The characters have a complex and important backstory that is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. So the author attempts to do the same thing over the course of the five-page plot summary. Dropping hints about the hero’s tragic past works fine over five or eight chapters; done in three or four paragraphs, it’s either obvious or confusing.

Setting: The setting is one that’s likely to be unfamiliar to most readers (or it’s a unique construction by the author), but that the author sees as vital or integral to the story. The author has put most of it into a three-page prologue…which is, of course, part of the “portion” that they’ve sent along with the synopsis. Nevertheless, they spend the first page and a half of the synopsis repeating all this vital information, leaving much less room for summarizing the parts of the story that aren’t part of the submission.

Characterization: The writer attempts to show 400 pages of character growth and development in five pages, without explanation (because you’re supposed to show, not tell, he/she thinks). This makes the character’s actions and reactions look jerky at best and inexplicably random at worst.

Alternatively: The writer has twenty characters who have viewpoint scenes (though a couple of them only have two scenes in the whole novel). They include the names of all twenty viewpoint characters in the five-page summary, whether or not their particular subplot is referenced, which makes it difficult to tell who the main character is and how any of these other characters are related to the main plot thread.

Plot: The writer has numerous subplots that weave around and feed back into the main plot. So they try to get all of them into the synopsis, exactly as they appear in the story. This leads to synopses that start: “Mary barely survives the shipwreck of the Maria Andria and is washed up on a Caribbean beach. John studies for his music degree in upstate New York. San Francisco art collector Bob searches for a missing painting. Mary’s daughter Jenny runs away from her third week in a rehab program. Meanwhile, Carol is kidnapped by aliens.”

A synopsis that’s meant as part of a portion-and-outline submission is an adjunct to the three chapters you’re sending along with it. It needs to be clear. It needs to show the editor that the story has a shape, a flow, and an ending. It does not need to mimic the story or include every single character or subplot. It also does not need to mirror the novel’s structure or pacing.

It is perfectly OK for the synopsis to begin “Five years before the novel opens, Richard Merrill was framed for theft” or “Told in scenes that alternate between present and past, the novel begins when Jonathan learns that his estranged sister has disappeared” or “Jerry is a mid-level manager in a secret international conspiracy supposedly dedicated to controlling the world’s supply of titanium, but unknown to him, it is really a front for an alien race that intends to use a supposed geothermal project to turn the Earth into a second sun.”

I am going to leave it here for today, having covered a bunch of stuff not to do, and continue next week with some more positive recommendations for what to do.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,