I’m doing a synopsis-brainstorming session this week with my plotting students (If you’d like access to such fun sessions, join the Plot Blueprint Course! http://bit.ly/plotblueprint). They might be disappointed not to end up with a complete 10-page synopsis (in 2 hours? :), but this isn’t about writing the synopsis but rather conceptualizing the story in miniature– BEFORE writing the story synopsis.
(BORING STUFF HERE ABOUT WHAT A SYNOPSIS IS. Synopsis: A narrative summary of a longer story, used primarily to “sell” the story to editors and agents.BLABLABLA)
I’ve read a few thousand synopses– the price of a stint as an acquiring editor– and generally that’s what they are: Boring Stuff. A long stringy outline of disconnected plot events. A couple “hot taglines” and a “hook” and a final “insightful sentence”. A resulting sense of futility and failure.
Hey, let’s not do that.
Maybe you have to write a synopsis because you want to submit to an editor or agent. Maybe you need one for your publicity packet so that interviewers will have questions for you even if they don’t actually read the book. Maybe you are going to address a book club and want to provide some explanatory material. Maybe you are planning the sequel to a story and want to make sure it connects thematically.
I mean, no one writes a synopsis because it’s fun (because it isn’t fun). But if you have to do it, let’s have some fun– and in having fun, we’ll end up with a much better synopsis and even a better understanding of what the audience will love about our story.
Okay, okay, some will point out that using the Beatles as a reference will date me. Ha! I was a member of the original 1965 US Beatles fan club, and now my grandbaby is going to be raised as a Beatle fan (if I have any say in the matter!). The Beatles are timeless… just like me. :)
John,Paul,George, Ringo. The Beatles are the absolute proof of the truism that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” So is your story. It’s not plot+character+setting+theme+emotion+voice+prose+dialogue. All those things come together like the Beatles to be more than the sum of elements– they interact to become the story.
First thing then is to think of the synopsis as a “mini-story”, not a plot outline. This isn’t about events. This is about the feel of the story, the sound of your voice, the journey of the characters, as created by the merging of plot+character+setting+theme+emotion+voice+prose+dialogue.
Second tip is to move beyond those pieces of story to the integrative aspects of the story– the sort of secret ingredients that YOU put into the story, you the author who thinks and feels and speaks and writes in a unique way that might seem separate but work together so well in you.
Where do the Beatles come in?
Well, if you know anything about them, you know that each is unique himself, and has become sort of a “signifier” of a particular aspect of the whole. You know, Paul is the cute one, Ringo the funny one, etc.
Here’s my own categorization of the boys in the band. It will not be the same as yours perhaps, but here is what I think each contributes to the whole that is the Beatles (and keep track, because these will be the elements of our synopsis-conceptualization).
John:The Passion. Sure, John Lennon is usually considered “the smart one”, but “passion” is what he really manifested from the first, when he impetuously demanded that that kid with the bass guitar join his new band, through his wildly romantic disruptions, to his tragic death. He’s all despair and obsession and longing. What’s the passion in your story? What’s the John? What’s the central emotion, the demand you make on your reader to FEEL THIS!
Now I don’t mean that every story has to be wildly emotional. After all, John wrote the almost sociopathically chill song “Norwegian Wood” (around the same time he wrote the achingly poignant “In My Life”). But just as “Norwegian Wood” conveys the emotion of someone just exhausted by emotion, even your most clinical cyberpunk story has some passion in it, I bet. Maybe it’s the subliminal terror of technological apocalypse, or the secret longing for a more organic life, or something else– something that arose out of what you or your characters want or fear. What’s that?
That’s the JOHN of your story. That’s what I’ve always thought of as the “heart of the story”– the central emotional experience that creates the plot propulsion. It doesn’t have to be flashy. I have a story where the “heart” is two lonely, quiet people finding the courage to love again. What about yours? What will the audience feel while reading your story?
Paul:The Curiosity. What? Paul– the writer of the “silly little love songs”, the devoted husband and father, the band cheerleader– isn’t the emotion center, the heart, the passion? Nah. I’m sure he’s just as sweet as he always seemed to me (of course, I went for the cute one!). But musically, within the Beatles, Paul was all about experimentation, novelty, fusion– “I wonder what will happen if…” You know, it wasn’t John or George who championed the very young Jimi Hendrix and his guitar experimentation– it was Paul, who also dabbled in weird electronic music even as he resurrected the oompah melodies of his father’s music hall tradition.
While the John-penned songs tended to be melodic cries from the heart (“Help!”), Paul would justforthehellovit mix traditional harmonies with off-beat characters (“Paperback Writer”), then transcend rock (guitar+drum) entirely with the symphonic “She’s Leaving Home”. Many of the groundbreaking experiments on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper (along with the very concept of the “concept album”) were inspired by Paul’s curiosity. And this is why he’s now regarded as the most technically impressive of the Beatles, the most musically interesting, even if he mostly wrote (as he called it) “silly little love songs”.
What’s the Paul in your story?
What’s curious and unexpected in your presentation of the plot and characters? What’s experimental and what’s a throwback? It might be your convention-busting approach to a conventional story (“The Three Little Pigs” told from the wolf’s point of view??), or your fusion of genres, or your innovative juxtaposition of tropes, or your Paulish delight in alliteration and rhythm. What might go right over the head of a casual reader but be recognized by an editor or agent as truly exceptional? What most reflects the uniqueness of your voice and vision, or your particular excellence?
George: The Spirituality. George was the youngest Beatle, and the one most involved in that era’s spiritual awakening, most eager to bust free of the hidebound mindset of postwar Britain. And the other Beatles bemusedly followed his lead to India and meditation and weird harmonic convergences in music. At the time, some cynics thought of him as a dilettante, dabbling in practices he didn’t understand. But spirituality was a lifelong quest for him, giving him the courage to ask the really big questions that western philosophy and religion didn’t fully answer– about purpose and inner peace and being simultaneously “within you and without you”.
Like Paul, George liked to experiment, especially with non-western stringed instruments like the sitar and the ukelele. In fact, his experiments in music are a lot more apparent, especially in the middle period (Revolver and Rubber Soul) where his use of Indian melodies give many songs a unique and fresh sound. Later he would laugh about the amateurishness of his early sitar skills, but that willingness to risk failure, to be a beginner again, is a necessity for spiritual seeking. He sought answers, but not “yes/no” answers– more he was seeking insights, enlightenment– and more questions. For George, the journey was the destination.
What’s the George in your story? Are you exploring any deep questions about identity or connection? Are you using interrogative techniques like a mystery or quest structure? Do you take your characters on a journey from one life or emotion condition to another? What themes or message do you want to convey in this story? And is there some seeking of your own that inspires the story? What in this story shows your desire to discover, learn, become more?
Ringo:The Fun. Ringo is the odd-man-out alongside this trio of serious seekers. But of course, he’s essential to the totality of the Beatles– supplying the irreverence, the tolerance, the pleasure, the downright FUN. First off, of course, he’s effortlessly comedic, tossing off funny lines, beaming that infectious grin, jovially refusing to be impressed or intimidated. Heck, he wasn’t afraid to sing lead in his uncertain baritone, even there in a studio with three accomplished singers. He was even willing to stick his own goofy fun song “Octopus’s Garden” in the middle of the epic album Abbey Road. And he laughingly joined into the role-playing of the Sgt. Pepper band, poking fun at his own status in “With a Little Help From My Friends”.
Through fame and fortune, tragedy and tumult, Ringo was always clearly having a good time, and reminding his gloomier bandmates that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. No surprise he later entertained a new generation as the narrator for the Thomas the Train cartoon series. But Ringo is a good reminder that fun doesn’t have to be shallow, as his compassion and serenity manifest in his sunny attitude. Most of all, his humor derives from his impressive self-confidence, which is leavened with a easygoing tolerance for others.
So where is the Ringo in your story? Even if this isn’t a comedy, is there an undercurrent of humor or unpredictability in your prose or your situations? Are your descriptions colorful and quirky? Are your characters all uniquely themselves, rendered with your authorial empathy? And maybe your whole story shows that self-love and confidence that always characterizes Ringo? If you’re asked, “What will your audience find fun about your story,” what would you pinpoint?
Okay, now what? Jot down your insights about those essential elements in your story here:
John:The Passion of my story is
Paul:The Curiosity of my story is
George: The Spirituality of my story is
Ringo:The Fun of my story is
Done? Is that the synopsis? Of course not. You still have to do all the plot summarizing and character journeying and theme developing stuff. But… but before you get into the boring part, start with the passion, the curiosity, the spirituality, and the fun. Figure those out in your story, and then we can get going on how to incorporate those into your synopsis so it won’t be boring at all.
If you have an editing question you'd like us to address, feel free to send it to rasley at gmail dot com. We like reader questions because they save us from having to think up post topics on our own. ;)
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