18 October 2013
What I Learned While Synopsis Writing
by Dixon Hill
The experience certainly taught me to envy those who write with an outline. If I’d had one, up front, I suspect my synopsis would have been finished much quicker. But … that’s just not the way I do things, because—while I’m sure it would help in synopsis creation—it stymies my story-writing something awful.
I’m one of those idiots who practices what I call Modified Organic Writing: I write without an outline, waiting to see what transpires as my characters interact (the organic part)—though I usually do have a pretty good idea where things might be headed (the modified part). If that seems confusing, don’t sweat it, buddy—I really don’t quite grasp what I’m doing, myself. (I’m sure you’re shocked—SHOCKED!—to hear that.)
One problem this creates, is that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the entire novel, once I've got it completed. I can grasp several parts of it, at the same time—but my mind can’t quite manage to encompass the entire work at once. I wind up looking like the guy in this photo: Not the guy in the foreground; that guy in the center, behind the painting. You can only see his hands and the top of his head. He’s behind and underneath the thing. If only he could stand out front, he might get a chance to see what the painting is really all about. Then, maybe he could come up, not only with a synopsis, but perhaps with a logline or something, such as John M. Floyd discussed earlier this week.
If that guy in back, could come out from under it and stand in front of the painting, he might be able to tell someone it’s: “An exciting depiction of pirates infiltrating a port town they’re about to raid!” As it is, however, he’s really not in a position to grasp what he’s talking about, if he tries to describe what he’s got his hands on.
Anyway, for the use of anyone searching for a method they can use, to find their way out from behind or beneath an organically created novel, to a workable (perhaps even winning??) synopsis, I offer the following lessons I learned during the process. Will any of this work for you? No idea, buddy. But, I’m tossing it out there just in case you can use something, here.
When I posted, last year, about my trouble writing a synopsis, one of the comments people made really stuck in my mind. It warned me to be careful not to create an outline instead. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but have a much better—though probably still incomplete—feel for it now. In fact, I eventually discovered I was doing just that. Building an outline, instead of a synopsis.
Stymied because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the entire manuscript, I finally opted to work chapter-by-chapter, distilling each chapter to a paragraph or two—not worrying too much about length, because I knew I’d cut later. When I was finished, of course, I realized I’d created the outline I was trying to avoid. It was long, very informative—but utterly lifeless.
That outline wouldn’t sell a book; I knew that. But, the next morning, I began to realize that what I’d constructed might be a very valuable tool, if I could decide how to exploit it to advantage.
Most importantly, perhaps, I realized that I’d lucked-out by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, as a first step, because this gave me a distillation of the work, which my mind could encompass. Then, as I worked on the synopsis, I felt my eyes opening to what had really been meant in that comment.
Along the way, I visited a website I found quite useful: LisaGardner.com There is a lot of information out there, about synopsis construction, but somehow I just couldn’t grock what it all shook-out to mean. At this website, however, the author offers tips for successful synopsis writing (under Writer's Toolbox) which I found I could understand.
I see the chapter-by-chapter outline as serving the purposes of the white structure supporting the slide, which is the exciting path followed by our synopsis. But, notice how little of the outline structure actually touches the slide story. To streamline and curve the slide, increasing the ride’s excitement, I concentrated on telling only the central core of the story, deleting all mention of any events or characters that didn’t have to be there. Then, I went over that story again, polishing it to a high sheen, while ensuring I didn’t add something that wasn’t in the novel.
My hope is that the synopsis reader never even senses that the outline support structure is there. And, that's okay, because whoever reads the synopsis isn't going to climb the stairs on that white tower.. Instead, s/he's going to step from ground-level straight onto the slide, and—WHOOSH! Off we go to story splash-down. Hopefully.
My story had to leap several gaps, of course, because so much supporting information was left out. Look at the slide picture again. See the distance between supports? The slide rides right through those gaps, but can’t sag, or the ride will be ruined. In a manner I find it difficult to explain, reinforcing to prevent sag made it possible for me to spot small places in my novel, where I needed to include a one or two sentence explanation, in order to close or tighten a loophole.
Thus, one of the most important discoveries I made was that constructing my synopsis not only created a tool for selling it, it also helped me correct problems within the story itself. I was so bowled over, in fact, that I’ve changed my attitude on story outlines to a degree.
I still don’t plan to outline prior to writing a story or novel, however, I now plan to create an outline, and generate a synopsis, prior to final editing. I’ll probably start by creating the outline and synopsis just after the first full edit, so that I can get a better handle on the entire work—as a whole—which I now believe will help me conduct better-targeted cutting and editing of the manuscript.
So, there you have it. What I learned from writing a synopsis, in a nutshell.