In short: the art of the synopsis

This is not going to be an expert how-to article on writing a killer synopsis. If I could write an article like that, I could write a good synopsis and I’d have cracked this novelling lark and be off living the high life somewhere. Or living the same life I’ve got now, with the warm glow that comes from seeing your book in a shop occasionally. However, I have just finished the synopsis for my CWA debut dagger entry (what am I going to blog about once I’ve sent it off on Saturday?), and I can share a few insights.

First I’ll point to places I’ve used for reference: the debut dagger advice itself, a page I found a while ago when I was trying to put together a synopsis for the unpublished (and commercially infeasible) serial novel Wasted Years, and a page which is largely directed at romance novelists but has lots of advice that seems transferable.

Writing a synopsis should be so simple. It’s short (1000 words maximum for the debut dagger), you don’t have to know exactly how the cunning twist comes about in all its detail, and all you have to do is say what your novel’s about. I found it very helpful to follow the advice from Marg Gilks and do a short chapter summary. Every week or so I went back and skim-read the chapters I’d written since the last summarising session, and wrote in a document kept purely for this purpose a few sentences outlining main plot points. Since this is a detective novel I made sure I wrote down key facts that had been discovered or relayed, so I could keep up with who knew what. This has been useful during the writing itself, never mind the synopsis – you can’t have a big revelation if you glance down your summary and remind yourself that he knew that 3 chapters ago.

So organisation seems crucial for writing a synopsis. The other main ingredient is of course editing, and the amount you have to do for this might even make you reasonably good at it. Even the brief chapter summaries probably add up to something substantial, and certainly my version with the who knows what when element is far too detailed for a synopsis. This is a good test of how ruthless you can be, you will cut out entire subplots, characters and probably some of your neatest summing-up phrases. Not only are you trying to convey the plot but you’re also supposed to convey something of the flavour or style of the book, which is the bit I found hardest, my early drafts were the right length but more like dry bullet points than a flowing abbreviated tale.

My main breakthrough came when I realised (not just knew that this was said to be so, but really realised) that the person reading the synopsis doesn’t know how accurate you’re being – if you’re cutting corners, using sleight of hand, oversimplifying, it doesn’t matter. As long as the synopsis itself makes sense, which is where OneMonkey (or your personal equivalent) comes in – having someone else read it is invaluable and it’s not like it’s going to take them long. The detached eye will not only pick up on the usual typos etc, but on points at which the ruthless editing has chopped the linking sentence, the first appearance of someone you refer to familiarly later on, or the only other plot point that made what you wrote in paragraph 3 make sense.

In short, then:

Get organised. Get good at editing. Get yourself a friend who’s not afraid to ask why on earth Theodore would be so bothered about dropping his apple pie.

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