Archive | August, 2007

Writing The Synopsis–Tactics

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.

Writing That Pesky Synopsis–Strategy

We’ve spent the last couple of days clearing the ground so we could talk about how to write a synopsis for your novel. Today, we’ll get into details.

You are shooting for about 2 single-spaced pages in your synopsis. Let’s do a little math here.

A single-spaced page holds about 500 words, so we’re talking about 1000 words.

Your novel is going to be about 100,000 words, so you want something only 1% the size of a novel. In fact, you want something with about as many words as ONE of your average scenes.

Your novel will have 80 to 100 scenes in it. If you use 1000 words to cover those scenes, then you could only use about 10 to 12 words per scene! That’s about one sentence per scene.

You can’t say much in one sentence, so the fact is that you can’t even summarize every scene and do it justice. So you need a strategy to condense the story even more sharply. I’ll give you that strategy now, but first I need to give you a little background information:

I’ve been rereading Robert McKee’s book STORY recently, gleaning any wisdom I could from him. I had read his book years ago and found it overly complicated. This time, I got a bit more out of it. I have always believed that a story has four different layers of plot, ranging from the highest level down to the lowest level, as follows:
1) The one-sentence summary of the story
2) The 3-Act Structure
3) Scenes
4) Motivation Reaction Units

After rereading McKee, I think there are actually six different layers of plot, as follows:
1) The one-sentence summary of the story
2) The 3-Act Structure
3) Sequences of scenes
4) Scenes
5) Beats (groups of Motivation Reaction Units)
6) Motivation Reaction Units

The important thing to notice is #3 on that second list–Sequences of scenes. What McKee points out is that not all scenes are created equal. Some of them are more exciting and some are less exciting. They actually clump together into sequences of 3 to 5 scenes, in which the tension rises to a peak.

The reason this is important is that if you do the math, you’ll find 20 to 25 sequences in your novel. So if you identify your sequences of scenes and write one paragraph on each one, you’ll have 20 to 25 paragraphs, which should just about fill up 2 pages.

That, therefore, is your strategy for writing a synopsis: Identify the sequences of scenes in your novel and write a paragraph about each one. If you have already Snowflaked your novel, then you have a spreadsheet with one line for each scene. So it should be easy to scan down that spreadsheet and find the sequences.

That’s the strategy. What about tactics? How do you write each paragraph so they all combine to make a dazzling synopsis? We’ll cover tactics tomorrow.

The Truth About Synopses

Whoa, lots of questions today! Thanks to everyone who posted comments. First, let me define what I mean by a synopsis and tell you a LITTLE about it. Then I’ll answer some of the questions. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how I recommend writing a synopsis:

When editors talk about a synopsis, they are referring to a short (2 pages or so) summary of the plot that goes in your proposal. The synopsis should be single-spaced with one inch margins on all four sides, and it should be written in third person present tense. That is the kind of synopsis I’m talking about here.

OK, let me deal with your questions first:

Donna wrote:

Is this the one line synopsis or longer? And what’s the difference between a synopsis and a summary? (Sorry, just got home from work and need sleep. My brain is mushing it all together.)

Randy sez: No, the one-sentence summary is a different animal altogether.

Lois wrote:

I’ve read about three kinds of synopses (which would seem to make the work three times as difficult, or perhaps even exponentially harder).
1) One paragraph, 2) one page, and 3) as many as 15-20 pages. I suppose the one sentence is a form of synopsis as well.

In practicing these forms it would seem that starting with the longer, and working to the shorter would help
distill the essence of the story.

Randy sez: I find it easier to start with the shorter forms and work up to the longer forms. The reason is that it’s easier to polish and edit a short piece than a long one. This is the heart of my Snowflake method.

Gina wrote:

Oops! I just sent off my 24 page single spaced synopsis to Camy Tang for critique (Yes 24, she requested the longer the better!) I’m pretty sure I got inside the characters’ heads, just a bit. I’ll be sure to remember this when I cut it down.

Randy sez: No need to panic! Camy is not an acquisition editor, she’s a freelance editor/critiquer. You can send her whatever she wants and whatever you feel like. Her job is to help you figure out your story structure. An acquisition editor is not paid by the word, however, they are paid to find gems and they are overwhelmed with thousands of manuscripts. Therefore, the quicker they can work through the stack and find the good stuff, the better. That’s why they want a short synopsis.

Camille wrote:

When talking of synops now, are we talking about something you plan to submit to agent or editor, not the one you the writer are using to write your story? Generally speaking, don’t pubbers prefer shorter?

As Randy said, they hate reading them too. I’ve heard it said that they’d rather skip the synop, pick a random spot in the writing, look for red flags in your dialogue, then if that doesn’t gag them, look at the writing, also hunting for red flags. If nothing turns their stomach, then they go back to the synop.

Randy sez: Correct. The one you show to the editor or agent should be a couple of pages. I shoot for 2 pages. The synopsis you use to write your story can be as long or short as you like; it’s for you only and so just use whatever works for you.

Most editors I’ve asked about synopses tell me that the first thing they do when opening a proposal is to look at the sample chapters. If those don’t sing, then it’s bye-bye baby to that proposal, because editors buy great writing, not great synopses. If the writing is good, then they read the proposal, looking for a reason to say no. Is the genre clearly defined and saleable? Is the concept strong? Is the story structure sound (in the synopsis)? You need a yes on all those (and probably a bunch more) in order to get a yes from that editor. I often review manuscripts at writing conferences, and the above is pretty much the order I use to approach the manuscript.

Bonne wrote:

Randy, would the progressively more detailed summaries from the snowflake be adequate for a summary sent to a publisher, or would it need tweaking? If so, what needs to be included? And didn’t you say in Fiction 101 somewhere that editors love to get all the background character stuff, writing the plot summary from each POV?

Randy sez: The one-sentence summary from the Snowflake works great on the first page of your proposal, but it is not a synopsis. It’s the “story premise”.

The one-paragraph summary from the Snowflake also works great on the first page of your proposal, but it is also not a synopsis. It’s just a one-paragraph summary.

The Snowflake calls for writing a one-page synopsis of your storyline. This is for your convenience while developing your story, but it is too short to show to an editor or agent. Expand this one-page synopsis to a couple of pages and show THAT to the editor/agent.

In Fiction 101 and/or Fiction 201, I talked about putting in what I call “character synopses” in my proposal. These are NOT the regular plot synopsis that all editors require. A “character synopsis” is a summary of the backstory and frontstory for a single character. I usually put in 5 to 7 of these in a proposal. Each of them is a third of a page up to a full page, so I shoot for about 3 pages total. “Character synopses” are not conventional; you will not find these mentioned in the usual sources on how to write a proposal. I don’t know if anyone else in the world writes “character synopses,” but I assume some people do. I like them because they tell the editor that this will be a good strong character-driven novel. Editors like that.

Rachel wrote:

I must be crazy, because I enjoy writing synopses! In fact, I’m so busy that I seldom have time to do more than a one-page synopsis of a story. I have several journals full of novel ideas, just waiting to be crafted into full-length books. I like the idea of plotting and structuring stories, and often dream of selling my ideas to someone who would craft them into amazing books. But I also enjoy writing, so I could never bring myself to do such a thing.

Randy sez: A few people love writing synopses. Lucky you, Rachel! My buddy John Olson also loves writing them, which was one reason I enjoyed teaming up with him for two novels. The synopses we wrote together really sang. I’ll talk more about that process tomorrow.

Why Synopsis Writing is Hard

Today, I’m beginning a series of blog posts on writing a synopsis for your novel. One of my readers asked why synopsis writing is hard.

I’ll tell you why it’s hard. Because you just spent years of your life writing a novel, learning the craft of writing fiction, learning about Three Act Structure and Scenes and Sequels and MRUs and how to Show it, not Tell it, getting inside each POV character’s head in third person past tense, double-spaced and now . . .

Now somebody changed the rules on you. All the rules.

A synopsis is single-spaced. A synopsis mostly Tells, rather than Shows. A synopsis is written in third-person, present tense. You do NOT get inside any POV character’s head in a synopsis, because a synopsis does not have any POV characters. There are no Acts visible in a synopis. No Scenes, no Sequels, no MRUs.

Somebody changed all the rules on you, and it’s not fair. A synopsis is a completely different genre from a novel. Forcing a novelist to write a synopsis is like making a sonnet-writer create 4-line Google ads.

That’s why writing a synopsis is hard.

By the way, just about all novelists hate writing synopses. Just about all editors hate reading them. If life were fair, synopses would be done away with.

There is only one reason why a synopsis is required for a book proposal, and that is this: It is the easiest way to see whether the story has a decent structure. If your editor doesn’t hate the story after reading the synopsis, then it may well have a good structure. If you don’t hate the story after writing the synopsis, then it might have a good structure. If either you or your editor hate it, then the structure stinks like rat pudding.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about that pesky structure and how you show it in your synopsis.