Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Synopsis Psychosis, Part One

It’s inevitable. Whenever someone sends you their synopsis, you receive something like this:

Here’s my synopsis. It sucks.
When I write a synopsis, my voice changes. It sounds awful.
I hate my synopsis.
I can’t write!

For some reason, writing a synopsis inspires…psychosis.

psychosis [(seye-koh-sis)]

A severe mental disorder, more serious than neurosis, characterized by disorganized thought processes, disorientation in time and space, hallucinations, and delusions. Paranoia, manic depression, megalomania, and schizophrenia are all psychoses. One who suffers from psychosis is psychotic.

Or a writer.

What is a synopsis?

synopsis [(si-nop-sis)] A narrative showing your story’s progression with an emphasis on character growth as affected by the events in your plot.

Before you hyperventilate (or hallucinate), let’s break that definition down into manageable pieces:

A narrative showing your story’s progression…

That’s understandable and not at all cause for paranoia. Think: plot line.

Remember this from your high school and college English classes?

Well…let’s forget it. That thing has disorientation written all over it (among other things. Denouement? Okay, yes, it’s French. But it sounds like something you’d scrape off the bottom your shoe, not the resolution of conflicts within a plot. Oh crap, I stepped in denouement.)

Instead, for the purpose of writing your synopsis, I want you to think of your plot like this:

There. That’s far less frightening. We can discuss this without fear of anyone passing out or vomiting or anything wretched.

I want you to imagine your plotline as a skeleton. You’ve got a skull, a spine, a pelvis (that would be your middle) and feet. (He’s lying down.) At any rate, it’s just the bare bones. And since we’re imagining, you’re a forensics person. Or an archeologist, if you look good in a fedora. Either way, you’re working with this frame—this skeleton—to build a story. So…how do you start?

Begin at the beginning.

The most important thing you must do at the beginning of any story is introduce your characters and their goals, motivations and conflicts. (Some people prefer to describe these at their wants, reasons and obstacles.)

Generally, the character with whom you begin your story is your protagonist, and this is the person you’ll introduce in the first paragraph of your synopsis. Just as in your story, you’ll want to introduce their goals, their motivation and their conflict.

But instead of showing all these things, you’re just going to tell them, in the simplest way possible. Just the facts. No dialogue. Think of it this way: You need to put flesh on your skeleton. But you want it to be lean and muscular, with no fat. (Hmm…I should have named this “Put your Synopsis on a Diet”. ) Anyhow, that’s where your adjective+noun+name character tag comes in handy. (See Friday’s post.)

Confirmed bachelor, Dr. Stu D. Leeman only has thirty days to complete the research that will earn him the grants to keep his family’s foundation intact. But when a new neighbor moves in  his peace—and his concentration—is shattered. Repeated requests to keep the kid quiet get him no where. In fact, they only seem to make things worse. 

Not a great start, but it will do. Notice how I’ve introduced my protagonist. He’s got a name, he’s got a goal (finish his research), motivation (to keep the family foundation from falling apart) and he’s got a conflict (a new neighbor with a noisy kid). Hopefully the editor reading your synopsis gets an idea of his personality just by looking at my adjective+noun+name combination.

Notice, too, that I’ve managed to put a bit of my voice—and more importantly, his—in this, by calling the boy, “the kid”. By using this term I can imagine him sitting there, rolling his eyes, wishing “that kid” would just. Shut. Up. (And keep his baseball away from the Lexus in the driveway. But that’s a detail you can show in your story. Not here. Not necessary. As pretty as Stu’s silver Lexus is, I don’t need to describe it in my synopsis.)

Since I write romance, I’d want to write a second character paragraph for my heroine. But that’s it. I’m not going to go into the life and times of any other person in my book, not even the noisy kid’s. I might refer to him by name, but it would be a quick introduction as part of my heroine’s paragraph. Because as integral as he may seem to you (and her), in terms of your story, he’s only a device to get these two folks together and cause some more conflict.

Gasp. I know. The horror. You do all this work to make the child realistic, believable and even—maybe—likeable. But in the end, he’s just fat on your skeleton.

Clarice O’Banshee moved to Smallville to escape the memories of her abusive marriage. With son Austin in tow, she’s determined to start a new life. And all would be perfect, if not for her demanding and arrogant neighbor. But along with a new life, she’s got a new attitude. She’ll never give in to a man’s demands again, especially when it concerns her little boy.

Do you see her goals, motivations and conflict?

From here, I can segue into my next paragraph by discussing/telling/introducing what English teachers (like me, once) like to call “the inciting incident”. Some people call it a moment of change, or a call to action.

But all I have to say is

When the boy’s baseball smashes a hole in his car’s windshield, Stu knows it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. What he doesn’t expect is the hellcat who answers the door next door; with her wide eyes and fiery spirit, she’s everything in a woman he tries to avoid: a distraction.

This brings us to the end of today's discussion and the middle of our synopsis (the topic of tomorrow’s post.) I hope you feel a bit better and less psychotic. The key, from the beginning is: keep it simple. All those fancy schmancy plot charts and sticky notes some people tell you to use will drive you crazy. (So will the French.)

Tomorrow, we'll discuss the rest of our synopsis definition: ...with an emphasis on character growth as affected by the events in your plot.

On Friday, I’ll be discussing The End of the story/synopsis (the denouement, if you like). And I’ll be critiquing one of your synopses to see how you put flesh on the bones of your plot skeleton. Any questions? Please ask!


  1. Yay! Great post, Cyn. I look forward to the rest! :D


  2. Awesome post! I look forward to reading the rest!

  3. Nice job!
    I like. :)
    Will be back tomorrow and read the rest.