Saturday, May 2, 2009

The How and Why of the Synopsis

synopsis--a summary or abstract of a short story or novel; a compressed outline of the basic plot points and motivation; a guide to the behavior and attitudes of characters in a story.

A writer in search of a literary agent and/or publisher is still beset with a raging enthusiasm for the finished work. The writer wants to see the work in print, to know others, readers, will now have the opportunity to read it. Thus the first roadblock: said literary agent or publisher wants a synopsis--even if said publisher has already heard about the work in a pitch session, then encouraged its submission.

Why, the writer wonders, do they want a synopsis? Why not simply read the manuscript? The answer to these and other publishing-related questions are not rational. For instance, few individuals in publishing (writers included, by the way) have risen through the ranks to at least a journeyman level. Many in publishing have come from business-related areas, their degrees actually MBAs instead of, say, MFA. It is true that acquisitions editors should be able to determine the inherent value of a manuscript, and indeed, many of them can, but there is another truth at play here, which is that the editor has to produce the prospectus for the work before--in most cases--the work goes to the contract stage. In theory, the editor could write the synopsis. In further theory, it might make sense for the editor to do so because the synopsis would reflect the editor's enthusiasm for the work.

In fact, the author is the better person to write the synopsis because the author's intent and enthusiasm emerges, and because the author, however much given to grumbling about the chore of the synopsis, is more likely to produce an emotionally charged work than the editor or literary agent. Look at it this way: Even though you hate writing synopses and can see no purpose for them, who better than you is there to synopsize your novel?

Onward to the outline: Get some practice. Start by writing fifty- and a hundred word abstracts of short stories. Pick two out of any best-of-the-year collections, settling on one you like and one you don't. You're already halfway to the goal because the stories in either of the three major best-of collections have appeared in prestigeous publications, their validity ratified by a number of critics. Your own sense of liking or not liking particular works allows you to see what the critics may have seen, while offering you the opportunity to disagree with their choices.

After you have the hang of abstracting a shorter work, take a look at the Books Briefly Noted section of any issue of the New Yorker (which covers fiction and nonfiction). Next, take a longer work that is not your own, then imagine yourself attacking a similar hundred- to hundred-fifty-word critical apercu. Now you're almost ready to begin.

First step: decide who the principal teller of the story (point of view) will be. If there is more than one narrator, make a note of all. If there is only one narrator, put the initails POV in parens after that individual's name the first time the character is cited. For instance, "Mary (POV) was adopted when she was one year old." If there are other narrators, allow a speace break between Mary and the next narrator, say Fred.

Thus, "Fred (POV) is her older brother, adopted previous to Mary's adoption."

Next step is to introduce what the novel is about, what its primary goal is. Example: "Mary wants to learn the identity and locale of her biological parents." Note how this is done in the present tense regardless of the usage in the actual text of the novel.

The next step is to introduce some potential for early disagreement or outright opposition. "Fred knows who his biological parents were and where they live. He does not want Mary to learn either fact."

Now we have opposition and some conflict, which may demonstrated with: "Although Mary loves and respects her adoptive parents, Fred, relishing the big brother role, is constantly taunting Mary by questioning her loyalty and devotion to her adoptive parents.

The conventional pattern for the synopsis is to keep it at about three single-spaced pages, but this brings us to a fork in the road regarding the ending. Some synopsis writers "end" the summary with the lead-in to the climactic scene, where the tensions and pressures weigh heavily on the characters and they must face some kind of decisive action. How specific must the ending be? Is it possible to keep the reader(s) of the synopsis in suspense with mere outline and occasional bits of dialogue? On the other hand, if the final confrontation/denouement is left unresolved, won't the literary agent or publisher "have" to read the entire manuscript to see the ending?

This is a critical point for all concerned. If the outcome is too detailed, the writer may be stuck with that ending because the editor will have been sold on it ending that way. If the ending is not rendered with enough detail, the editor may become put off, not trusting the author. Thus the trick is to tell just enough to allow the editor to infer what happens, yet continue to hold the editor curious enough to want to read it all the way through to relish the details.

Knowing all this lead-up background, think of the synopsis this way: Your book will be taken on by a publisher, printed, bound, sent forth to appropriate reviewers and subsidiary rights agents, along with several thousands of other titles, there to compete in the metaphorical crowded drawing room that is a book store. Someone will provide Wikipedia and possibly even Amazon dot com with a description of your book, possibly even spoiling the ending to the point of obviating the reader's need to see how things worked out. Your synopsis can get there first, influencing how your novel will be seen.

Repeat slowly: Synopses are not nuisances, they are incentives. Synopses are not...

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