Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Writing the Synopsis

Writing a synopsis of your work ought to be easy, right?

Well, not for me. It took me about half a dozen goes at a synopsis of Elsie Smith to come up with something that I was remotely happy with.

The problems of writing a synopsis are fairly obvious. You have to compress an entire book into a single page. Enough must be on view on that one sheet of paper to sell your story. Not everything that happens in the plot can be included – some things will have to go. Which ones, and how to decide? Is there room for any discussion of character traits? What about the conclusion of the book – do you really want to give away the ending in a single-page summary?

So much so obvious. Any writer should be able to summarise their work. Just pick out key facts, arrange them in a series, and you’re there. Easy in theory: but every time I started to write the synopsis for Elsie Smith, things quickly went wrong – I ended up with what sounded, baldly stated on a page, like a series of clichés. Elsie Smith is not clichéd. So why did the synopsis come out sounding like it was?

Here’s how one attempt began:

“The world is empty and silent.

Britain is gone. The USA is gone. Civilisation itself has gone. By day the world is an eery, ghostly place, full of rusted cars long abandoned and mouldering buildings falling into ruin. Wild creatures are all that move – but behind blacked-out and boarded-up windows, mad figures lurk and wait for nightfall. There are no prey for the vampyres any more: all are dead, or, like them, in tormented undeath afflicted with the curse of unquenchable thirst…

Only on one isolated island are there survivors. Here a few hundred souls eke out a precarious existence, battered by fierce Atlantic storms and beset by boatloads of vampyres from the mainland.”

Appalling. I’ve used nearly half a page, haven’t mentioned Elsie Smith or anything about what actually happens. It didn’t matter how I started, I always felt that I had to paint the setting first, and that always wasted nearly half the available space. Carry on like that and I’d be looking at two sides at least.

I don’t usually put the ending in my synopses. But I read somewhere on the net that you should, and having read that, I knew at once that this was so. Why? It is the difference between getting someone to read your book for pleasure (blurb on the back of it) and getting someone to read it with a view to selling it to someone else (your approach to an agent, who has to know how an editor will receive it).

That being the case, I hit upon a theory. What if I started the synopsis at its end? Just write down the ending. Then go back a step and put down the important thing that happened before the end. Six such jumps and I was back at the beginning. OK, so I still had a page and a half, but it read a lot better. The opening bit was reduced from the quote above to this:

“Civilisation has been destroyed by a plague of vampyres. Only on one remote, windswept island do people remain.”

Conclusion: there is no room for description in the synopsis. There is very little scope for character traits. “Determined and dutiful” was all I could fit in for Elsie. For Zero, “arrogant and flamboyant.”

One thing about synopses: to write one, you must know what your book is about. If that sounds silly (“You’ve just written the damn book, how can you not know what it’s about?”), it’s not meant to. It’s possible to write a book without ever considering what it’s actually about.

No comments:

Post a Comment