Thursday, November 29, 2012

Writing A Synopsis

If there's one thing authors hate writing, it's synopses. What is it about these things that is so difficult?

Just before the ACFW conference, my agent encouraged me to develop my book into a series concept, which is an idea I was (and am) very excited about. Problem? I haven't written the other two books. Sure, I had some ideas floating around in my head that I was excited about, but ideas and outlines are two very different things.

So I started researching online for synopsis tips and tricks. And I kept coming across these things: 1) The synopsis is dreaded.  2) All writers hate synopses. 3) Your synopsis will probably be awful writing. Just expect it.

Uh, anyone else not okay with that idea? Let's just throw in the towel before we even give it a try, shall we?

You wouldn't think it would be that hard. I mean, it's only a couple pages. I can see all sorts of areas for improvement in other authors' synopses, so I should also be able to see the same weaknesses in my own, right? Wrong.

In the past few months, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that synopses really are challenging. But they don't have to be dreaded. See, the thing about synopses that's so cool is that they offer you something very powerful, and that is a big picture approach for your book before you even write it. If you can write a well-organized, thoughtful synopsis of your story, writing your book is going to be that much easier because you'll be able to stay focused.

Today I'm compiling the information I've learned through the process of writing, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting my synopses again. (By the way, a major shout out to Angie, who read every version of my synopsis and never threatened to ban me from her inbox, but instead offered helpful suggestions each time around!) I hope you find this to be a helpful resource for you as you work on your own synopses, and I hope it helps take a little bit of the terror out of the processes. I've adapted many of these concepts from Cami Tang's synopsis worksheet, from MBT resources, and just from my own general reactions of disgust when I realized something was really, really not working for my plot.

  • The Plot Level
    • External goal. Your protagonist's external goal needs to be very clear, very early on. Preferably even the first paragraph. Editors like to see that this girl knows where she's going and what she wants. This is so important because it helps pave the way for the obstacles she is going to encounter along the way.
    • The inciting incident. Usually this is going to come in you first or second paragraph. What incident throws your protagonist into the story? Loss of her job? A sudden move across the country? A scratch-off lotto win? The realization she's a princess? (Sorry, couldn't resist. Who doesn't love Princess Mia?)
    • Obstacles. Include two or three external obstacles that keep your heroine from reaching her goal. These need to be believable, legitimate, and clear. "She ran out of Godiva truffles and missed an important meeting because she had to go to the grocery store for more" is probably not a very good obstacle, although we can all sympathize.
    • Black Moment. How does it all come crashing down? This could be one of your obstacles.
    • Resolution. Be sure you show us how the plot threads connect to bring us to the ending.
  • Emotional Level
    • Dark moment. What moment from your character's past is holding them back? This moment should shape some kind of fear or apprehension that fights against (or perhaps further compels) their push toward their external plot goal.
    • Desire. Your character needs an emotional desire that will give her motivation to climb her way past the obstacles you put in her way. In a romance, your character likely is going to desire love, yet hold herself back from a relationship with the hero because ________. This reason will relate to the dark moment, so that the desire and the resistance create a push/pull effect that draws in your reader. Also, you can relate your character's emotional desire to their desire to accomplish an external goal, thus tying together the plot and emotional threads.
    • Black moment. In the same way that the black moment causes the external goal to fall apart, the black moment should also (seem to) confirm your heroine's greatest fear, thus positioning her to find the strength to conquer that fear and attain the goal (or not, but at least find closure in the process).
    • Resolution. The emotional level must be resolved. Even if you don't allow the character to reach their external goal, unless you're writing literary fiction, your character should attain her emotional goal. Otherwise, readers are going to be very mad.
  • Spiritual Level
    • Lie. Your character needs to believe a lie throughout the book, not only about herself (i.e. she's safer not risking her heart in a relationship), but also about her faith/God. The emotional level and spiritual level can relate to each other, but they both must be clear. If you're going to sell to a CBA publisher, they are going to want to see some sort of faith journey depicted in the book. And really, isn't that why we as CBA writers have chosen to write for CBA? We should take advantage of this privilege and include the spiritual arc in our characters' journeys.
    • Obstacles. Just like the plot obstacles should show setbacks and growth within the character's emotional arc, these obstacles should impact her spiritual arc as well. You want to confirm her worst fear, then force her to face it and help her get beyond it. You can utilize your external goal and obstacles to really play around with the emotional and spiritual stakes and journey. If you get stuck, think about your own life. You might think you would never face ___________, but what if you could find love, youth, or a free trip to Hawaii on the other side of that obstacle? Brainstorm some motivations that would be strong enough (on the plot level) to force your characters out of their comfort zones. 
    • Healing. This is where the bring-you-to-tears moment comes in if you play your cards right. After your character goes through those obstacles--and once again, they need to be challenging, difficult obstacles--we will respect her for her strength, dignity, and courage for how she faced these challenges head on (even if not perfectly) on her quest toward her external goal. Throughout this process, God is working on her heart more and more, until finally she finds a breakthrough. The light through the clouds. Spiritual epiphany. It's really important that you include this moment of hope and spiritual healing in your synopsis so that whoever is reading your synopsis is clear about the spiritual takeaway readers will get from your story.
A few notes...

You'll want to include these elements for each of your primary characters. So if it's a romance, we'll need to see a basic plot, emotional, and spiritual arc for your hero as well as your heroine, although you'll probably want to spend more time with the heroine.

Remember to include your voice in your synopsis. You may want to write a draft where you just focus on getting all the elements in, then revise it with your own dazzle. But however you go about it, make sure the writing really shines, because this is the first taste an editor or agent has of your writing style. If you can hook them with your voice in the synopsis, then you've really accomplished something.

Try, as best you can, to play these elements off each other, so that your main characters' lies, for instance, cause problems with each other. In my most recent book, my heroine is afraid of abandonment, and my hero is afraid of being a failure/letting down the woman he loves. I'll leave you to guess what he does, and how that affects her. Try to find a way that the characters' black moments play into each other, and your story will be stronger from that irony.

Have fun! Yes, I know what you're thinking. No way is that going to happen. But all too often, we listen to all the negative buzz about synopses... they're dreaded, they're hard, and they are going to be awful. Don't adopt that defeatist perspective. Sure, brainstorming can be frustrating, but it's so rewarding to have a big picture version of your story before you've even started writing it.

Take these sections a little at a time. This is advice I am giving you from experience. It is all too easy to take on too much at once, but you'll end up frustrated. Let the ideas come to you naturally. Go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Imagine possibilities. Talk to your characters out loud. Pray about your characters' struggles and stories. Seek the help of those with fresh perspectives, like critique partners, mentors, and friends. When you open your mind to creative possibilities, you'll find that the ideas flow much more easily.

Have you ever written a synopsis? What did you learn through the process? What do you think is the hardest thing about writing synopses?


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Excellent post packed with so much information! I love how you really broke it down.


Lindsay Harrel said...

Love the break down! I've written one synopsis and it really wasn't so bad. I'm structured, so I liked seeing the whole story in a blip like that, but it WAS difficult since my plot was intricate to explain things but not explain EVERYTHING--because the synopsis can't be 100 pages long. HA.

Julia M. Reffner said...

I wrote a 300 word synopsis for conference. Had a tremendous amount of difficulty breaking it down to that few words, but after a lot of tweaking I found the synopsis was helpful to me because it helped me to get a better feel on the major concepts of my story and the underlying themes. So I guess I learned from it. Now I have written 2 more and I think learned a bit more in the process.

Love this, very helpful!

Joanne Sher said...

So very helpful! I need to write me a synopsis before I "restart" my current WIP. NEEDING that focus for sure. Thanks, Ashley!

Celia Lewis said...

Amazingly helpful - and so timely as I'm writing synopses to get more organized in my writing efforts. Thank you so much for the fabulous tips!

Ashley Clark said...

Sherrinda, thanks, girl! I really just compiled various resources, but we'll pretend like I made it all up. :)

Linds, SO true! It's one thing to boil down the plot elements, but when they connect, it can be so difficult to explain one thing without explaining all the other aspects!

Julia, I love your perspective! And I think you're very right. It can be so much easier to discover themes and even symbols when you've fleshed out the story in the synopsis.

Ashley Clark said...

You're welcome, Joanne! Best wishes to you as you work on that synopsis!

Thanks, Celia! I hope you find these concepts helpful. Writing a synopsis can definitely help you get more organized and help with focus as you write. Hope it goes well for you! :)

Jenna C. said...

Yeah...I've had problems with the synopsis for my story...thank you for the tips!! :D

Unknown said...

This is great, Ashley. It's similar to what Susan May Warren teaches at My Book Therapy. I love the way you broke it down!

I don't dread the synopsis, and I'm with you: it doesn't have to equate with bad writing. Use those active verbs! :) Thanks for sharing your wisdom today. :)

Ashley Clark said...

So glad you found it helpful, Jenna! Thanks for stopping by!

Great suggestion, Jeanne! Active verbs are so important!

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