Monday, October 24, 2011

Write Brain Report: Hilari Bell's "Writing the Dreaded Synopsis" by Lori Sly

Writing the synopsis of a novel seems more difficult to me than writing the novel itself. There’s not a speck of space to ramble, blather or digress.  Ah, yes, conciseness: the mark of a good writer! In a synopsis, there is no choice but to be concise. Maybe it’s our ultimate test.

On October 11, Hilari Bell led a Write Brain session about synopses. Writers in the audience were keen for guidance from her, an author with eighteen published novels. During the session she reviewed synopsis rules and recommended six points for starting a 1-2 page synopsis.

Hilari began by sharing some general rules for a synopsis. It should be written in present tense, and the main character should act to change the plot rather than just having events happening  to him/her. Tone should match the tone of the manuscript. One to two pages is the length most often requested, but other lengths are also needed at different times. Here are the variations:

·       1-2 sentences, sometimes called the “log line,” used in short verbal pitches
·       1-2 paragraphs, used in a query letter
·       1-3 pages, requested by an agent or editor
·       5-8 pages, requested in contests
·       40+ pages, an old custom for agent and editor requests, not used much anymore; often the request included a few sample chapters and the summarized ending

After ten years of writing and not selling synopses fiction, Hilari discovered two crucial skills, one about point of view, the other about starting technique.

As in manuscripts, a strong, compelling point of view is important in synopses. Editors and agents like them better if written in active language from one main character’s point of view. The less desirable way is for the writer to tell the story from a distance. So instead of beginning with, “An anthropology student went to a site...” begin with, “Kelsey Armand dug up a...”

Before Hilari acquired the starting method she uses now, she tried writing synopses by summarizing each chapter in the story. These synopses tended to be too long, and she had difficulty deciding what to cut. A strategy she learned later, which led to selling synopses, was starting with a skeleton approach: six plot points. She heard this technique in one of Pam McCutcheon’s workshops. (Hilari gave Pam the credit for five of her six starting points mentioned below.) Once the main plot sentences are written down, she adds transitions and clarifications. Adding just enough to make the synopsis read well creates the shortest synopsis, the kind to put in a couple of paragraphs for a query letter. More information can be added for situations allowing longer synopses. I explain Hilari’s six plot points below.

The first point to start a synopsis is an Ordinary World statement. This describes a main character’s situation before the story kicks off. Hilari gave examples from the plot of the movie Wall-E:
  Wall-E the robot is alone on earth, cleaning up trash a vanished humanity has left behind.
The Inciting Event creates the second point, the introduction of the main plot problem.
   Another robot, Eva, arrives. But she is only interested in her mission, not in friendship. 
Next, add The First Change of Direction. A plot twist should occur 1/4 to 1/3 into the story, something to send the main character in a new direction and change his/her plan of action. This is also known as the end of Act I.
   A mysterious ship comes to Earth and sweeps Eva away. 
The Second Change of Direction is a plot twist taking place about 2/3 of the way into the story. Either the stakes are raised, or another new direction leads straight into the climax. Often this is where character growth occurs.
   Wall E chooses duty over love, and orders Eva to save the plant. 
The Climax resolves the main plot problem, occurring within one or two chapters of the end.
   Wall-E steps in and saves the plant from being crushed, even though he is so badly damaged that his own personality is destroyed. 
The sixth and last plot point is The Wrapping Up, where the author reveals how story events have changed the main character’s life.
   Eva takes Wall-E back to Earth and helps him recover.
After the six main points have been established, add missing parts such as character motives for their actions and character growth through the story. Also insert anything necessary to understand each plot point. Finally, include transitions between the points, and a summary at the end.

Hilari said the biggest trick to writing a synopsis well is learning to leave out as much as you can and still tell a good story. Even if you have a science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction story, world details should only be included to support understanding of what the main character does and why. Furthermore, if theme is integral to the whole story and works in easily, put it in; otherwise, leave it out. In longer synopses, there may be room for more world details, theme, and an enticing subplot. But start with the six plot structure points and add in only what is most critical to the main story. It is much easier to decide what to add to a skeleton set of sentences than to relate the whole story and decide how to reduce it.

            During the session, M.B. Partlow, contest coordinator for the 2012 PPW Fiction Writing Contest, provided hints for scoring higher on a synopsis for the contest. One of her first hints was not to underplay its significance, and to allocate time beyond writing your chapters to make a synopsis right. The submitted chapters are worth 45 points total, and the synopsis is worth almost as much at 40 points. One of the biggest reasons writers fall short of winning the contest is that they pay too little attention to writing a decent synopsis.

            M.B. cautioned writers to include what happens at the end of the story--don’t create a cliffhanger or hook ending for the synopsis. Another hint was to make descriptions specific rather than vague. For instance, “dog” could become “frisky Cocker Spaniel,” which paints a clearer picture. Also, she suggested you limit the number of names introduced to between three and five important characters. Don’t be afraid to call a taxi driver just that—he doesn’t need a name. When you’re finished writing a synopsis, have an objective reader review it. He or she will find errors you can’t see in your work because you’re too close to it. M.B.’s last suggestion was to use the score sheet and example winning synopsis available on the Pikes Peak Writers website ( to guide your writing.

For the last part of the Write Brain session, Barb Albright, a brave novice writer, submitted her synopsis to Hilari for review. Barb had drafted a single paragraph. Her story was about 15-year-old Serena who wants to fit in a new town, but finds she has inherited an old soul that won’t let her. Hilari worked on expanding Barb’s paragraph to include the six plot points and reach a 1-2 page length. Her first piece of advice was to use the main character’s point of view and make her more active rather than acted upon. She also advised creating tangible, specific ways to show how the protagonist has accomplished fitting in or not. Similarly, she suggested Barb add tangible, specific oppositions to overcome for the climax, rather than the protagonist’s internal realization about her old soul. Hilari closed the session with a new story synopsis, one which invented new plot points where Barb had them missing. It turned into a helluva ghost story.

Attending this Write Brain session got me thinking about the value of synopses. I find that although they’re difficult to write, summarizing a finished story by its main plot essentials makes me revisit whether I buried them in the manuscript. It also contributes to better pitches, because it gives me practice telling the story in simplified terms. So beyond the initial dread of writing one and then hoping that whomever I’m submitting to doesn’t ask for it, it can be helpful to write one, even if no one else ever reads it. I’m eager to try Hilari’s skeleton starting method, as I’ve been creating synopses the difficult way: writing the whole shebang down, or a good deal of it, and painfully making cut by cut.