Every episode of Neighbours I’ve written has required a synopsis, not just in my credits as the writer (fifteen) but as a storyliner (at least fifty-something). Every feature film script and/or idea I’ve applied for funding for (about four now) has required a synopsis. Every short film I’ve entered into a festival has had them (five?). And this book I’m working on needs one as well. As I don’t have an assistant, I’ve written every single one of them.
So I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this, but writing synopses are The Worst*.
This is for a couple of reasons:
1) Synopsis require us to strip our story down to the barest bones, leaving out pretty much everything we love most about what we’ve written. Character detail, subplots, comic relief, meaning, relationships, etc. There’s no room for anything that isn’t vital to an understanding of your story, the tone, the challenge (or quest) and the protagonist. To do that ourselves and kill our darlings – at least for a little while – is pretty darn difficult.
You’ll probably notice how much easier it is to summarise someone else’s work. This is why.
2) The synopsis has to not only summarise the story, but sell it. Which makes you feel like one of those people with a microphone standing outside a jewellery shop annoying everyone about the cheap, cheap deals inside. Writers don’t like feeling that way. We like to live in the delusion that simply the existence of our (obviously) amazing work will draw people to it.
It won’t. Sadly.
3) Writing a good synopsis is like writing a good novel, screenplay, episode or play (the synopsis unites us all). It takes time, and a lot of drafting. But by the time it comes to write the darn thing, you’ve spent so long on that actual book/script that you’re tired and over it and you just want to release it into the world. So all you feel like doing – and then do – is bash out a few paragraphs, check it for typos, and hit publish/send.
Unfortunately, this is a horrible plan because the synopsis is what gets your book read and your screenplay funded. These are both things you want to happen.
So, as a long suffering synopsis writer – who has definitely fallen prey to Number 3 before and still struggles with Number’s 1 & 2, here are my two tricks to managing the pain.
1) Start your synopsis after your first draft and check in on it every few days/weeks/months (depending on your deadline) and just keep refining it. You’ll probably find you’ve put way too much information into it the first time, and from there you can strip it down and tweak it to sound more exciting (but never lie – misrepresenting your story for the sake of a read is dodgy business, and your readers won’t thank you). It’s a much less annoying and daunting task when done in bits, and can actually help you find your focus in drafts going forward. Win/win!
2) COPY OTHER PEOPLE! I mean, not actually, but do read lots of other synopses of stories you’re both familiar with (to see how they’ve dealt with focusing on the main story) and ones you’re not (to see how they grab you). It’s the easiest way to teach yourself how to write a grabbing synopsis. This is much easier for authors than screenwriters as authors can just grab a book, whereas comprehensive film synopses (not the bit on the back of the DVD or that terrible one on the wiki page that keeps changing tenses) used to gain funding and/or interest aren’t readily available.
But because I’m focusing on being an author type writer at the moment (sorry screenwriter friends, I love you still), let’s do what I just said and look at some synopses of bestselling books to get an idea of what we should be doing.
Note: all books are from the shelf closest to me.
First up, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Ridiculously successful YA action novel turned trilogy and now film series. If you don’t know what this is about, you’ve been living under some kind of internet free rock.
MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOUR
WINNING WILL MAKE YOU FAMOUS.
LOSING MEANS CERTAIN DEATH.
In a dark vision of the near future, twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live TV show called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.
When sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.
Simple! Whoever wrote the synopsis (probably not Collins, given the way traditional publishing tends to work) gives us plenty of information about the book in two paragraphs (and two taglines, slight overkill). The first gives us the unique setting and challenge (points for not once using the word ‘dystopian’) and the second introduces us to the protagonist. With only a few words, we understand that the world is different and totalitarian, and that Katniss has a close bond with her sister and can handle herself well in a fight. It’s all we need to be able to judge whether this book is something we’d be interested in reading.
About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Bestselling coming of age comedy turned Hugh Grant’s best role. It’s not a bestseller on the scale of the other two examples here, but very popular and successful back in the days when films being made from new-ish books wasn’t the norm.
‘HOW COOL WAS WILL FREEMAN?’
Too cool! At thirty-six, he’s hip as a teenager. He’s single, child-free, goes to the right clubs and knows which trainers to wear. He’s also found a great way to score with women: attend single parents’ groups full of available (and grateful) mothers, all hoping to meet a Nice Guy.
Which is how Will meets Marcus, the oldest twelve-year-old on the planet. Marcus is a bit strange: he listens to Joni Mitchell and Mozart, looks after his mum and has never owned a pair of trainers. But Marcus latches onto Will – and won’t let go. Can Will teach Marcus how to grow up cool? And can Marcus help Will just to grow up?
Again, a simple two paragraphs. As this is a character based story, the synopsis focuses on our two mains and easily sets up the conflict by juxtaposing them. And because it’s a comedy, it keeps the language light and a bit casual. Of course, this synopsis leaves out the entire cast of supporting characters and only hints at the hugely important (and taxing!) relationship Marcus has with his Mum, but it’s all just colour to support the real story, which is that of Marcus and Will helping each other deal with their respective baggage.
I sort of hate owning movie/TV editions of books, but oh well. A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. I don’t know whether this edition has a different synopsis to the previous one. It may be taking into account that many people buying the book have now seen the massively popular HBO show. (I wanted to use the synopsis of my pre-TV edition of A Feast For Crows, the book used for the most recent season and a masterful job at summarising eight hundred different storylines in three paragraphs, but there’s a massive Season 4 spoiler in the first line and I’m a nice person.) Anyway, here we go:
Kings and queens, knights and renegades,
liars, lords and honest men.
All will play the
Game of Thrones.
Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. It will stretch from the south, where heat breeds plot, lusts and intrigues; to the vast frozen north, where a 700-foot wall of ice protects the kingdom from the dark forces that lie beyond.
The Game of Thrones.
You win, or you die.
This synopsis does about all you can do with ten-plus main characters and a setting that spans two continents: get vague, imply awesomeness. We do get a lot of hints of what to expect even with the brevity: political intrigue, creepy beasties, brutality, and some adult content. Without going into any of our protagonists (and you could arguably have focused on Ned Stark here), it sets up the world and the conflict quite nicely in one paragraph and two tag lines considering that it’s a 780 page small print book.
As you can see from my own book synopsis, I’m still struggling through the process myself. I need to cut it way down, but as I continue to edit the book, I continue to edit the synopsis. They inform each other, and I find it really helpful to work on them at the same time. And if you get started early, you can put it out there in public and use it to (hopefully) spark someone’s interest and/or gain feedback before you slap it up on your amazon page.
So, the synopsis. Terrible, annoying, stressful.
* Within reason, subtracting things like famine and global warming and racism and everything much more horrible. Actually, let’s just keep it in a writing context. Synopses are The Worst if you’re a writer working on a writing thing.