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How to Avoid Plot Summary?
Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Saturday, June 9, 2012 4:06 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I know there are some other discussions on writing synopses, but the latest response in any of them is from February.  My synopsis is something I'm struggling with now, so I thought I'd start a new discussion.

Here's my problem.  I actually have a good "hook" or back cover blurb; I'm happy with the first three paragraphs or so.  They're enough of a tease to get someone interested. 

But then it all falls apart.  I degenerate into plot summary.  And I don't think that's the point of writing a synopsis, though of course there do have to be SOME plot elements involved.  (Also, my story is a little complex, with new characters being introduced periodically and with different groups of characters meeting up at various times.  So it's difficult to separate into individual storylines.  Everything is tied together.)

Obviously I can't get specific advice without posting the manuscript here, and I'm not sure anyone would want to read the whole thing in that little Book Country window (160,000 words).  I'm not sure I'd want to upload all the chapters one by one anyway.  But I'm just wondering what approaches people take to breaking down a complex story into something that's only 2-3 pages long.  I've gone on the web and none of the blog posts or advice columns are at all consistent with each other (other than the "use present tense" and the "don't tell EVERYTHING because there's simply not enough room" directives).

I feel like this discussion topic is still super vague right now, even with everything I wrote above.  So maybe what I'd like to see are some of the following:

(1) Specific processes you've undertaken to write a synopsis (assuming you have a finished work and you've been through this struggle before).  Do you map out the connections between characters?  Go chronologically?  Separate into major plot lines?

(2) Links to advice on synopsis writing that you actually find useful (not necessarily what turns up first on Google)

(3) Links to actual synopses of published novels, especially fantasy since that's what genre I'm writing in.  Like I said, I've got the cover blurb down, it's the rest of it I'm worried about.

(4) Any other advice you might have on avoiding plot summary.  I don't want my synopsis to read...first character X did activity Y in town Z, then traveled to town W where he met up with character V and did activity U, etc.  (Unfortunately, right now it's like that.)

This is a particular struggle with fiction for me; the abstract of my doctoral dissertation was a piece of cake by comparison.

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 18, 2012 2:39 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping this up!

Atthys Gage
Posted: Monday, June 18, 2012 4:20 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Sneaky.  I have done synopses of three different novels at this point.  The process is always pretty agonizing.  In all three cases, the novel in question was in the 90 to 100 K word region.  My best synopsis ended up being about 900 words, which is a nice, wieldable length.   The other two were each twice that length and felt even longer.   

I can't explain (because I don't understand) why the one was so much better than the other two.  All three had complicated plots with many characters.  All three received a lot of time an effort.  But I will give you my take on my basic approach:
You are correct – a certain amount of plot summarizing is obviously necessary.  AND I think is unrealistic to think you can make it all seem like breathless back cover blurb copy.  That said, your main focus should be on conflict.  Rather than trying to map out relationships between characters, identify the most important plot turning points.  Focus on these.  Fast forward from one to the next.  Plot runs on conflicts, reversals, revelations, complications.
  Since you are writing a synopsis (not a blurb) you will be giving us resolution as well as all of the above, but save it for the end, and don't waste time telling us what the resolution means to the characters.  In fact, I would generally of ease on any and all explanations and discussions of motivation.  If you need it, fine.  Otherwise, just omit it.  

And that, of course, is the crux.  Strip it down to the absolutely necessary.  Get that down first, then rework it for smoothness and to make it sound exciting.

Yes, keep it in chronological order (though you can probably get away with the occasional "Meanwhile, back in Peoria..." type of thing.  

Last word?  Don't sweat it overly much.  I think the blurb and query are more important sales tools than the synopsis, and most agents I've encountered say they aren't looking for brilliant writing in the synopsis, so much as evidence that you can string together a coherent, exciting story.  Obviously, try to make the synopsis coherent and exciting as well, but don't worry about leaving bits of plot out.  A perfect rendering of the details will probably make for tedious reading.  

Good luck.
Atthys Gage
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, June 18, 2012 6:57 PM

I actually have a good "hook" or back cover blurb;

And that’s where it belongs. A synopsis isn’t hype. It’s the stand-in for the manuscript, and will be looked at if the writing sample is acceptable. If you can’t write who cares what the synopsis says? And if you can, they don’t need to be sold, they’ve already read the blurb as part of the query. So toss that part from the synopsis.

• I degenerate into plot summary.  And I don't think that's the point of writing a synopsis, though of course there do have to be SOME plot elements involved.

Unfortunately, it is the point of the synopsis, so the plot elements are the point of the synopsis. That agent or editor is reading to see several things. First, is the plot complex enough to be interesting? Next, does it flow logically and are the various threads tied off well? Remember, they’re not going to say yes based on ten pages and your synopsis. They’re thinking of asking you for a partial or a full manuscript, and want to know the story. So that’s what you provide

You tell the story in present tense, showing the major flow of the novel. It’s not necessary to detail each scene, but the reader should know the various twists and how it ends.

Some resources


Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2012 1:24 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

Thanks to everyone who responded, and sorry it took me so long to reply (life gets in the way, sometimes, you know?).  I've definitely got a few things to think about now.  I appreciate the advice and the alternative perspectives (which ARE a bit different than what I turned up in my Google searching, and therefore quite useful).

Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2012 6:50 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

Thanks for posting this, Sneaky, and thanks for answering, Atthys and Jay!

I've often found myself in Sneaky's shoes, thinking 'oh, my god, this is... awful. It's A then B then C then D finally E, with no real *draw*. It's nice to know that it's not supposed to be deathless prose, but a basic 1,2,3.
Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 1:57 AM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 46

I actually begin writing my synopsis about halfway through my first draft. It helps me to make sure that threads are connecting and heading toward my intended resolution. If, at that point, I have trouble writing the synopsis, it's usually because I have a plot hole that needs to be addressed, and addressing it while drafting is much easier than performing surgery to fix leaky valves later.

I've heard the advice that you should write a sentence indicating the key changes in each chapter, weave those together into a synopsis and then adjust as necessary to make it flow.

And, so that you don't end up writing "and then...and then...and then" over and over again, do focus on the changes and conflicts. That way at least you can change up your vocabulary to "because of this..." "therefore..." and so on.
Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2012 6:00 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I've heard the same advice about writing a sentence for each chapter (or scene).  Honestly, though, I've ignored it.  For the synopsis I eventually came up with, I had to leave a major character and a couple of plot points out entirely.  There just wasn't room.  (Mine is one of those lengthy fantasy novels with a large cast of characters and a couple of planned sequels -- some things are just getting set up in this volume that will come to fruition later.  I chose to focus on what got resolved in this volume.)

I guess my strategy is a little bit different than yours; I outline fairly extensively and am pretty good about sticking to the outline, so everyone gets to where they need to be.  In fact, the only way I can get any writing done is just to write, and worry about resolution later.  I'm actually decent at spotting holes, inconsistencies, boring sections, repetitive language, and overused plot devices in my own work.  But only after I've got a completed manuscript to work with.  I suppose I'm more of the fixing-leaky-valves-after-the-fact type.

I actually used the same plot device three times in the first draft of my first manuscript (overhearing important information in a crowded tavern).  I kept one, eliminated another one that I decided wasn't essential, and rewrote the third so that the information was obtained in a different way.  But I don't think I would have noticed this halfway through (two of these instances hadn't even happened at that point, yet).

At any rate, thanks for the input.  One thing I like about this website is learning how different the writing process is for each person.  There are so many ways to get to a finished product.  What works for one person might not work for another.  But by reading everyone's contributions to these boards, I get a lot of great ideas that I can adapt to suit my own purposes, style, etc.


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