Two for writers: My method for writing a synopsis

For those who have been following my literary journey, One for writers: how not to get a literary agent, you’ll remember I promised ‘The Agent’ the opening chapters of the novel by the end of the month. The chapters are going really well and I have posted the first four on Authonomy for feedback. I reckon I will have the first draft completed in a couple of weeks, if I stick to 2000 words a day (the schedule has slipped a little, but essentially I am on target).

So the time has come to write the ‘dreaded’ synopsis. Nothing is likely to strike fear into a writer more than a request for a one-page synopsis. You want to shout: “If I could have told the story in one page, and not three hundred, I would have.” 

But shouting is not going to get the darn thing written. Nor is hoping it will magically appear on your laptop one morning. The only thing you can do is sit down and write it and hope you survive to send it.

So what is a synopsis?

Essentially it is what the story is about. What happens (to the character/s)? What are the major plot points; the highs and lows, twists and turns. It must include the ending, cliff hangers are a ‘no,no’. The agent wants to know if the story holds together. If the conclusion is – if not expected- then plausible and satisfying. But, and this relates more to general fiction than genre, the synopsis  also needs to convey the themes of the novel, or in other words, it must answer the why questions. Why does the character/s react like that? What is their motivation? What is their goal?

A novel’s readability is all about the tension you create. A character wants something and spends the whole novel trying to get it. The plot derives from their attempts being thwarted (what happens). And also, and more importantly, how they react to those events (why it happens). This is what drives the story and the reader forward. The ending should either give the character what they want or not (with the attendant nuances, such as they didn’t want it in the end anyway, or they got something different and better, or they got something worse).

There is plenty of advice out there, but if you try to follow all of it, your synopsis will be as long, if not longer, than the novel itself. 

However, I have come up with method that is relatively painless and seems to work (i.e. I’ve had full requests).

It came about after reading about surface and story-worthy problems. A detailed explanation can be found in Les Edgerton’s book on writing craft, called Hooked, and a summarised version can be found on his blog, here.

Essentially, he shows, through the example of the film, ‘Thelma and Louise’ – how the two levels work. 

The surface problem is what is happening (the plot). What?

The story-worthy problem is what drives the surface problem. Why?

Louise wants to go on a road trip with Thelma, but she knows her husband is likely to say no. As she begins to ask him, he brushes her off. Louise decides to go without telling him. This out of character behaviour already indicates that the story-worthy problem will involve Louise, but as yet the reader, nor Louise, knows what it is.

Emboldened by standing up to her husband, Louise persuades Thelma to stop at a bar. Initially Louise is happy to be chatted up by a man (Harlan), but outside in the car park, he won’t accept ‘no’. This shows Louise is not only under her husband’s thumb, but generally unable to stand up against men (story-worthy problem). Thelma ends up shooting Harlan (melodrama/action). Louise urges Thelma to call the police, but in the end decides to go on the run with her, which kicks off the plot proper.

The surface problem gets bigger and bigger; disobeying her husband, which leads to them being in the bar, and Thelma shooting Harlan, which leads to them running from the law. This relates to the story-worthy problem, which is, Louise is finally standing up to all the men who have abused and dominated her all her life (but again she and the reader do  not see this clearly until the end scene). Ideally, the protagonist and the reader need to discover the story-worthy problem at the same time.

The road chase is not only about whether they will get caught or not, but it is also a metaphor for Louise’s emergence from the shadow of men (the cop chasing them represents men’s oppression of women in general). This is what makes this film enduring.

So how does this help with synopsis writing?

I start with the surface problem. What is the inciting incident that kicks the story off? Sometimes it comes right at the beginning and sometimes a little way in. It is not always the most dramatic event. It can be something quite small and seemingly insignificant, but it’s repercussions are far reaching.

In Thelma and Louise, it is when Louise disobeys her husband, and not when Thelma shoots Harlan. Even though the plot-action results from the shooting, it’s because Louise stood up to her husband that they end up in the bar, and because she stood up to her husband,  she refuses to let Harlan bully her into submission.

Once I have identified the inciting incident (it is not always what I think it is when I begin writing), then I consider what the story-worthy problem is in relation to this. Why did the character do that? What’s going on subconsciously?

It is Louise’s attempt to assert herself against the way men have treated her, which drives her to go on the run with Thelma, rather than handing herself in. The police are a metaphor for men in general.  Legitimate but unjust power.

After you’ve  identified the inciting incident and the story-worthy problem, the rest of the synopsis is easy (honest). You pick out the next big thing that happens (which should be a worsening of the original surface problem)? How does this event, drive the story-worthy problem?  And so on, until you reach the end, where the surface problem and story-worthy problem come together.

If Thelma and Louise hand themselves in, they have not achieved freedom from male domination, and they will be back where they’ve started. For Louise, now she has had freedom, going back is not an option, so plausibly if dramatically, there can be only one outcome – to drive over the edge of the cliff.

I find thinking of my story using these two layers, helps me to pick out what is important for both plot and character motivation in the synopsis. I still need to cut and trim. The first draft or three are always too long, but essentially this approach has saved me hours of frustration and helps when I am writing the novel too. Keeping the story-worthy problem in your head as you write, helps to ensure scenes evolve from the character’s internal motivation, giving the scenes depth (layered).

Synopses will never be fun things to write, but hopefully they will be less distressing if you stick to the above method. Unless you’ve got a better one to share? How do you do it without tearing your hair out, or your manuscript up? Do you write it at the beginning, or leave it until the end? What’s the best advice you’ve found on synopsis writing? Please share.

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20 thoughts on “Two for writers: My method for writing a synopsis”

  1. I will give your method a try. Synopsis writing is not my favorite thing and I want to someday soon actually like my novel’s synopsis! Pat McAuliffe

  2. I did it. I finished the synopsis! It just fell out in a big splurge, even the ending, which is not quite written yet. I feel so much better, now I can see the shape of the story. It is too long, 1,500 words, but it is there and I am pleased with it. Editing next.

  3. Juliet, thank you so much for the shout-out of my little blue book–I appreciate it! It may interest you that I’m currently writing a writer’s guide which is based entirely on Thelma & Louise to inform fiction writing, titled THE FICTION WRITER’S WORKSHOP AT THE BIJOU. Your explanation above was spot-on!

  4. Wow! I am so chuffed that you came by Les, thank you. I am so glad you approve of the way I applied your ideas. Reading about surface and story-worthy problems was like switching on a light for me and has helped me so much. I will add your blog to my blogroll and will certainly be getting myself a copy of your book – Hooked is one I return to, time and time again.

    1. My pleasure, Juliet. I’ve already added you to my own blogroll and put you up on my blog as places to go to. If you get a chance, please stop by at http://www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/

      I don’t suppose you’ll be at Bouchercon in a couple of weeks,will you? If so, a bunch of us are doing a reading at Wonderbar near the host hotel on Friday and if you’re there I hope you’ll come by so we can meet.

    2. I feel extra-stupid! I didn’t realize you were in the U.K.! I should have known–I have a special affinity for readers and writers in England, Scotland, Ireland and other environs across the pond! The writers I respect the most are largely from the U.K. Folks like Paul D. Brazill, Helen FitzGerald, NIgel Bird, Richard Godwin and tons of others. I write mostly noir these days and these folks “get it.” Actually came close to having one of my novels taken as a film by Claire Mundell of Synchronicity Films in Scotland who I met through Helen FitzGerald, one of my favorite writers (THE DONOR, others). It’s lovely chatting with you Juliet–as my buddy Paul Brazill would say, “I”m gobsmacked and chuffed to meet you.”

  5. Gobsmacked and chuffed to meet you too, Les. I have a friend, who has moved to Arkansas (a love story that needs writing), so you may find me looking you up, sometime in the future. I have just bought the novel you helped to edit, Almond Tree, from the link on your blog. The Kite Runner stayed with me for a long time, and this novel looks exactly like something I would read. Real nice meeting you.

    1. You meet the nicest people on your blog, Juliet! Valerie, I just went to your blog and am going to post your link on my own. I have an Irish man who takes my online and Skype classes–he’s Irish but currently lives in London and is a dentist–and I’d like to introduce you to him as he may be able to take advantage of your classes at some point. I’m mentoring him presently on a noirish black comedy that I think is going to make some waves when it’s published. But, I think he’d be delighted to meet you and perhaps at some point be able to enroll in your classes. If you don’t mind, please contact me via email and I’ll introduce you to Gerald O’Connor. My email is (all lower case) butchedgerton@comcast.net. Juliet, please send me an email also as I have something I’d like to send you, okay?

  6. Thank you, Valerie, as a published author and creative writing tutor, I take that as a great compliment. Les’s ideas are very clear and easy to assimilate. His story-worthy problem sparked an interesting discussion with a writer friend about character flaws and how they drive the story. I will be following your blog from now on. I love to learn from others, who are much farther down the path than me. I just wished I lived in Dublin and could attend your creative writing course, it looks very inviting.

  7. I wasn’t sure about this post, when I wrote it. I was really struggling with my synopsis and felt a bit of a fraud trying to advise others, but the act of writing it and revisiting Les’s book, Hooked, clarified it for me. So glad the post has connected writers and is spreading good ideas (not mine, Les’s).

    I will email you Les, thank you.

  8. I’m chuffed and gobsmacked at hearing from you both! I’m at a similar stage to you, Juliet, writing my novel and trying to formulate my thoughts for passing on to others. Les, many thanks for your support and I’ll link to your blog too and will email 🙂

  9. Hi Mary, thank you so much for commenting and really glad you found the post useful. today is the day, I turn the 1,500 word beast into 500 words – but that’s the easy part compared to writing the darn thing in the first place.

Love to hear from you

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