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In praise of the synopsis

When submitting to a publishing house or agent, every writer has to present a synopsis. These are hell hounds to write. Everyone who has written one knows how difficult they are. And let me tell you, people, it doesn’t get any easier. You simply get used to the mind-boggling, over-simplifying drudgery of them. 

But they are useful, and that is true even before you send one off together with your sample chapters.

A synopsis is an outline of the plot. It includes information on the motivation of your main character, the motivation of that character’s chief antagonist, statements about the goal each of the main characters is pursuing and the big, big problem that each one must solve before they can reach that goal. It describes the event that triggers the main plot and each of the dramatic high points in the story, or as I call them, the plot thumbscrews. And a good synopsis states how the novel ends.

All this is vital information. Editors ask for it because it helps them to see whether the novel mixes all the right main ingredients and that the outcome is a logical consequence of all these elements.

As a manuscript assessor, I read hundreds of synopses. I quickly learned to identify problem areas in the larger story simply through the synopsis. A common — a universally common — problem is too many plotlines.

Apprentice and intermediate writers always multiply plot. They do it because they don’t know how to deepen the story. They only know how to make it sprawl far and wide. A synopsis with too many plotlines will ring alarm bells in any experienced editor’s mind.

Another problem area is the passive protagonist. This is the main character upon whom plot is inflicted by other characters, and who responds without initiating actions that create plot. Again, an experienced editor will pick up on that simply by reading the synopsis.

A third problem is the lack of a clear plot trigger, and a fourth is the lack of dramatic high points that make it harder and harder for the protagonist to get what she or he wants.

When I read a synopsis, these are the things I’m looking for. A synopsis can tell me so much that I can and do help a writer take their novel to the next draft simply by using the synopsis as my guide.

A writer can learn to use their synopsis as a guide in the same way. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do I have more than three or four plotlines? Is there one clear main plot and a network of lesser plots? Or are they all more or less of the same level of complexity and intensity? Plots should come in hierarchies. If all or most of your plotlines are of the same complexity that is a signal that there are too many plots. You need to make one more important than the others. 
  • What is the event that triggers the main plot?
  • Does this trigger make apparent the protagonist’s main antagonist? In other words, does the antagonist embody the problem the protagonist has to work on?
  •  Is my protagonist passive? How much of the plot do they create? Or are they merely reacting to the actions of those around them?
  • What are my dramatic high points? Do they make it harder for my protagonist to get what they want? Think really hard about this one. If you’re not sure, list the problems that arise out of your dramatic highs – these problems must affect the protagonist. If no problems arise out of them and make life harder for your protagonist, consider the possibility that there isn’t enough conflict in the story.
  • Do the protagonist and antagonist meet again and again as they struggle to get what they want? Do their goals clash? Can you say, if my protagonist gets what she wants, my antagonist loses what he wants? Does your antagonist have more power, more resources, more chutzpah than your protagonist? Does your protagonist win despite overwhelming odds?

 This is how an experienced writer thinks about their story. We write versions of the synopsis at critical points in the writing of the novel, that is to say, whenever the story grinds to a halt or seems to have gone off in a puzzling new direction. I write them to get it absolutely straight in my mind that my characters’ goals and motivation and internal antagonists are all working together to make the story gripping.

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She has written The Architecture of Narrative, available in paperback from www.threekookaburras.com 

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