In yesterday’s blog post, I outlined a strategy for creating the synopsis for your novel. I talked about identifying the “sequences of scenes” and summarizing each sequence in a paragraph.
Let’s look at how this plays out in practice. I’m looking right now at the synopsis that John Olson and I wrote for our novel OXYGEN. I remember writing this very well. We’d been doing research for several months, and most of the proposal was written, but we still needed to pull the synopsis together. And we were working long-distance. Then I had a chance to go up to a conference in San Francisco, just across the Bay from John’s house. So I took some time away from the conference and took BART over to meet with John for several frenetic hours of editing.
Here’s the first paragraph we wrote:
The year is 2014. Valkerie Jansen, a young Christian microbial ecologist, is presented with an amazing opportunity—to continue her research as a well-paid member of the NASA corps of astronauts. Broke, and burdened with enormous medical school loans, she accepts a position on the backup astronaut crew for Ares 10, the first manned mission to Mars.
This summarizes the first 7 scenes in only 3 sentences. The climax of that sequence is Valkerie’s decision to join NASA as an ASCAN–astronaut candidate. Notice that we don’t mention a single character other than our protagonist, Valkerie. You really can’t introduce tons of characters quickly and expect the editor to remember them.
Notice that we’ve already got the editor on Valkerie’s side–she’s broke, but here’s her chance to pay back those med school loans, by joining NASA.
Our next paragraph looks like this:
Valkerie discovers, beneath NASA’s cool and competent exterior, the paranoia and political infighting of a bureaucratic giant fighting for survival. Steven Perez, the new NASA Administrator, seems more concerned with PR than engineering. Nate Harrington, the flight director, is preoccupied with a security investigation. Bob Kaganovski, first engineer of the Ares 10 crew, is paranoid that he’ll be replaced.
This paragraph is a bit of a cheat. We didn’t cover the next sequence of scenes. Instead, we added a wee bit of background that Valkerie learns over the course of the first sequence of scenes. We’ve earned the right to do that with that strong lead-in paragraph, but in order to move ahead, we simply have to put in some background material.
Here, we introduce three new characters and set the stage for the early conflict. Valkerie has got herself into a rat’s nest of a bureaucracy (something we learned by reading a lot of books even before we visited NASA and saw for ourselves). We’ve introduced three characters here, and I’m not sure that was a great idea because of the confusion factor. One thing that worked in our favor here was the rule of three: By piling on three characters, each of whom brings a different dimension to the conflict, we make it clear that Valkerie’s in a boatload of trouble.
Notice that we are telling here, not showing. What makes it work is that each sentence tells the critical thing you need to know about each character in order to understand the conflict.
With the next paragraph, we pick up the action:
Bob asks Valkerie out to dinner, then realizes that she might be his replacement. At dinner, he tries to be polite, but when he learns that she’s a Christian, his patience wears thin, and he starts an argument, hoping he’ll never see her again. Then Tom Rogers, mission commander of the Ares 10, resigns. Kennedy Hampton, the second in command, will lead the team in his stead. Valkerie is promoted to the Ares 10 prime crew.
With this paragraph, we summarize the next several scenes. We start by highlighting the romantic tension–Bob and Valkerie have a mutual attraction, and a mutual repulsion. With that hook set, we continue the main storyline and get to the point–Valkerie is suddenly thrown onto the mission after the surprise resignation of the team leader. She’s going to Mars!
The next paragraph takes another giant leap forward:
Bob is openly hostile toward Valkerie during her training. It’s clear that Tom was forced to step down from the team, and Bob blames her. When security is mysteriously tightened yet again, Bob investigates. He learns that explosives have been stolen from a NASA supply room. Nevertheless, the launch goes ahead as scheduled.
This summarizes another long “sequence of scenes” that climaxes with the launch. We’ve injected a mystery element here. What’s the deal with those missing explosives? Who could possibly breach the tight NASA security?
The next paragraph begins with our first serious mistake in the synopsis. Let me quote only the first sentence, because it was dead wrong:
After a flawless lift-off, the four astronauts settle into a routine for their six-month voyage, but tension runs high.
What’s wrong? It’s that “flawless lift-off.” We’ve spent several paragraphs ratcheting up the tension, and now we give these boys and girls a flawless liftoff? No, no, and no. This is way wrong.
We noticed this when we started writing the first draft, and felt the tension drain out of the story at liftoff. So we fixed it. In the book, there’s pressure from high up to launch, despite windy conditions that are right on the safety margin. Rather than delay the launch, NASA lets it happen and the high winds cause the rocket to graze the tower on the way up. This damages a fin, which causes turbulence, which causes an extremely rough ride through the atmosphere. The ship undergoes severe vibrations before it reaches a parking orbit around the earth.
Should they abort the mission, or punch the button and continue on to Mars? If they abort, then they waste billions of dollars and give NASA a black eye from which it may never recover. And they lose out on going to Mars. But if there’s a problem with the ship, then they might not even reach Mars alive.
See how much stronger that is than our “flawless liftoff?” So if we were writing the synopsis now, we’d write it this way:
High winds on launch day cause an extremely turbulent liftoff. When the ship reaches a parking orbit around earth, the crew races to check out the ship. Can they continue the mission to Mars, or must they abort? The crew debates hard, then decides to risk continuing. They fire the remaining fuel in the engines and now they’re committed to the three-year journey to Mars.
When the book came out in 2001, there was some discussion by reviewers that our NASA people were making foolish decisions that violated safety procedures. Having studied NASA’s track record up through the 1990s, including its series of poor decisions regarding the Russian Mir space station, we thought our scenario was quite possible. Tragically, (and to our sorrow), we were right. Less than 2 years after our book was published, the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard–after an accident caused by a faulty launch. That same day, a book reviewer wrote this review of OXYGEN, which he finished reading just hours before the Columbia disaster.
I’ve now shown you about half a page of the OXYGEN synopsis. This is roughly a quarter of the synopsis, and it has covered about a quarter of the book.
I hope the procedure for writing the paragraphs of the synopsis is clear. Don’t summarize scenes. Summarize “sequences of scenes,” focusing on the climax of the sequence.
OK, now it’s your turn folks! Go ahead and ask some questions, make your comments, and if you like, post the first three paragraphs of your synopsis and I’ll critique a few of them.