Monday, June 24, 2013

Wordcraft -- Bringing sanity to your synopsis

The good news from my interviews with literary agents at last month’s DFW Writer’s Conference was that several wanted to see pages or chapters from my novel. And oh, was I prepared for that. I’d thrown my whole heart, not to mention computer, into polishing those opening chapters shiny enough to flash heliograph messages.

The bad news -- some agents also wanted a synopsis of the novel. Considering that I’d been to at least one agent panel and read any number of blogs in which agents all but swore on their grandmothers’ graves that synopses were a waste of time, I hadn’t written a synopsis worthy of the name. With hands I hoped didn’t tremble visibly, I wrote “synopsis” on the agents’ business cards and staggered from the room.

Maybe you’re thinking -- she wrote four hundred pages but she’s scared to write a one-page summary telling what the whole thing is about? Except if you’re thinking that, you’re not a writer who’s ever tried to cram four hundred pages into one.

Fortunately, Facebook friend and fellow writer Kathleen M. Rodgers had posted a link to “How to Write A One-Page Synopsis,” from Susan Dennard’s blog Pub(lishing) Crawl. I’m here to tell you that following this “three rules of thumb, eleven-point method” gave me a coherent one-page (single-spaced) summary within an hour or two. I haven’t had responses yet from the agents, so I can’t guarantee this will get you offers of representation. But it saved my sanity and it can save yours.

First -- the rules of thumb. Number one -- Dennard advises against naming more than three characters in a synopsis this short -- the protagonist, antagonist, and relationship character. I admit -- I broke this one for a couple of secondary characters. With words at a premium, it took less space on a page to use a one-word name than the two word description, “protagonist’s mother.”

Second rule -- Tell the ending. Right, spoilers and all.

Third rule -- Do not include sub-plots unless you have enough space. This one I bent. One agent had said she wanted to know if there were subplots. I sacrificed a single sentence to convey the biggest one briefly.

The eleven steps will be familiar to anyone who’s read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (although the nomenclature differs slightly) or any works dealing with three-act structure. They are: (1) opening image; (2) introduction to the protagonist, including his/her desire; (3) inciting incident; (4) plot point one; (5) conflicts and character encounters; (6) midpoint; (7) winning seems imminent, but. . . ; (8) black moment; (9) climax; (10) resolution; and (11) final image.

Weirdly enough, I got stuck figuring out what the midpoint was. In desperation, I thumbed halfway through my printed manuscript. And found what I needed.

If you’ve written any story at all, something major has happened halfway through the pages. If nothing leaps out at you from the exact numerical center, flip back or forward a few pages. Picking random examples from what’s on my nightstand -- it’s the place in Wuthering Heights where Catherine dies; where Tita of Like Water for Chocolate refuses the summons of her abusive mother; where the narrator of The Island of Dr. Moreau learns the extent of what the mad scientist has done. You will know the midpoint of her novel when you see it.

Susan Dennard applies this with examples from the movie Star Wars, which will also give you a much needed laugh. See her complete explanation at

For more about my generously-sharing friend, Kathleen M. Rodgers, and her work, see her author page at

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