By Anastasia McTague
Lots of young writers have had to tangle, at some point or another, with the terrible synopsis—a means of distilling the entirety of a story into a few intriguing sentences that quickly and easily explain the plot. If you haven’t yet had to write a synopsis, you’ll likely need to do so in the future. Due to the size of many stories, condensing them into a few catchy lines is often frustrating. Hopefully the method outlined in this article will help shed some light on the subject, and take some of the frustration out of the activity. I call it the Expounding Method, because there are surely other ways to write a synopsis, and you shouldn’t feel limited to doing it this way. It’s just an option and a place to start.
The first step is to boil down the plot to one line.
What is the most important, most basic aspect of the plot? Who are the primary characters? What do they need to do, and how do they go about trying to do it? Play around until you get a sentence that sums up the gist of your story. As an example, let’s say the one-liner is:
A group of ancient warriors destroy Lian’s village and he sets out to stop the killing.
Next, look at the one-liner and think about what important information is omitted. In this case, it leaves out who the warriors are, why they destroyed the village, how Lian intends to accomplish stopping them, what the bad guys are up to besides destroying that random village, etc. This is assuming we’ve got a good grasp on our story and have answers to the various questions (if we don’t, we’ll know we need to figure them out!).
Once those questions have been answered, try to think of a hook-type question for the end.
Note: it should be something that could go either way, and not “will he/she win, or die trying?” Readers will assume that the main character wins, because it is very rare for he/she to actually die trying. Even if we’re having a hard time coming up with a fifty-fifty ultimatum, we should at least avoid the live or die scenario and focus on something else. Even if it’s a question of whether the main character will succeed or turn to the dark side, the dark side is still more plausible than death. It’s slightly more likely that a hero will change sides than fail and die a martyr. The synopsis for the example story could be:
The Tenebrae were a group of magicians and warriors who tried to take over the country of Liss. However, they all died at the end of the war.
Or, so Lian had always accepted, until his town is burned to the ground by those same warriors. One spares his life, and Lian flees, vowing to end the killing once and for all. Dogged by his own ignorance in the art of war, Lian’s struggles only grow harder when he is forced to bargain for his life with one of the killers. As the Tenebrae work again toward their previous goal, Lian finds himself working harder to just stay alive than to actually end things. Will the boy succeed in his quest for justice? Or will his lust for vengeance destroy him?
Then we read that and cringe at how badly it flows. Not to worry, that’s totally normal. Now we need to determine which details should be included so that the target audience will read the book (the setting, the main characters, and the genre—romance, adventure, fantasy, etc.). We should mention that the story is fantasy so potential readers don’t pick it up hoping for a Victorian romance. Romance fans would be disappointed, and people who love fantasy would never read it, because they also thought it was romance. Readers will want to know about the story’s world, plot, and characters, but we must hold some information back so that we don’t spoil half our plot. Also, we should be careful not to reveal too much, because we want readers to have questions that can only be answered by reading the book.
Minimize the blobby info.
Once we’ve figured out which details are necessary and which aren’t, we can try paring down some of the blobby extraneous info:
The Tenebrae had all died at the end of the Tenebrae War.
Or, so Lian had always thought, until his town and all he knew was burned to the ground by the ancient warriors. When his life is spared by one of the killers, he flees, vowing to end the killing once and for all. Lian struggles against his own ignorance, not even knowing how to properly wield a weapon. His struggles only grow after he is forced to bargain with one of the killers in order to spare his life. Will Lian succeed in his quest for justice? Or will his lust for vengeance destroy him?
After reading that, we might cringe again, because it really isn’t much smoother. However, all the necessary info is in there, and we realize that removing anything else would leave out important points of the story. So we can’t take out any more, and we don’t need to add any more. Now all we do is experiment with the wording until it reads nicely:
They were dead, all of them, after the Tenebrae War.
When young Lian’s village is razed by the band of ancient warriors, everything he has ever known is destroyed. Spared by one of the killers, Lian flees. Cast adrift, he clings to one purpose—to end the killing. Forever.
Struggling against his own ignorance, Lian doesn’t even know how to wield a weapon. The boy’s struggle only becomes harder when he’s forced to bargain for his life with one of the killers. Will Lian succeed in his quest for justice? Or will the lust for vengeance destroy him?
This last step can be returned to as often as we like, but it’s not good to freak out about it unless we can identify what’s bugging us (I don’t like that “was” there, maybe I can reword this sentence better or I think this information would go better in an earlier paragraph). Synopses always seem lame to the writer because we’re taking thousands of words worth of story and cramming it all into a few sentences. We lose a lot of the emotion and tension and depth wrapped around the scenes. When we stare at the bare bones that are left, we doubt ourselves. That’s normal. But we should stop worrying over it. Although the quick presentation of our story may sound silly to us, it won’t strike our readers, who know nothing about our story and aren’t as intimately connected to it as we are. So don’t work on the synopsis forever unless you can pinpoint concrete problems to fix (such as wording or placement and so forth).
After all that, you should have a strong synopsis! Congratulations!
Anastasia McTague is a college student who, though majoring in biology, enjoys writing fantasy in her free time (when she has such a thing). She’s written drafts of two novel-length works and is working on a third, as well as balancing a serial story about sharks intended to dispel the fear her younger sister holds toward the animals. Aside from a fondness for sharks, she also enjoys interacting with other unusual creatures, such as her two pet snakes, Diamond and Puff. She is currently working to overcome a longstanding fear of arachnids. As of this writing, she’s willingly held three species on five occasions, which she considers great accomplishments.