I’m preparing one of my novels for submission, and I’m writing a synopsis. I hate synopses. Like all prejudice, it’s an irrational loathing–I always feel like I’m crushing the story, stripping away the beauty and leaving just a skeleton, and I can’t help but think that if people want to know what a book is about they should just read the book.
But this is only true for my book; I quite enjoy reading a good dust-jacket description and have a hard time buying a book that doesn’t give me some hint at what lies within. And I’ve seen many an exposed framework in other media that looks just as beautiful as the finished product. A house, for instance; the ribbing of a ship in the shipyards; a sketch for a painting. If a story is good, you should be able to strip away the finish and still see the wonderful potential in the bones.
Still, accepting the value of a finished synopsis is a far cry from being able to write one, and my instinct as a storyteller is to start telling a story, and I always have difficulty distilling my fiction to this essential, bare-bones extent. So I started poking around for some straight-forward advice on how to do one, because when all else fails, I still go back to exercises.
There are some great examples of synopses online and in books, but without the novel itself to compare with, it’s hard to see how the author stripped it down. Sometimes even when I know the novel, I keep thinking, But they left out this part, and this character, and this scene…. I discovered, eventually, that as much as I like to overwrite and then edit down a story, stripping away this much is simply too hard, and I needed to come at my synopsis from the other end, starting from scratch and building up.
But what to include? What speaks loudest, what is most essential? Worse: What am I forgetting? I stared at my blank screen for a long, long time, feeling very much like a brand-new writer, utterly unsure of what to do next. My beginner’s mind is not always a comfortable place to be.
Then I found this exercise, by H. L Dyer, which is somehow the best of both approaches. The description is a bit convoluted, but the short version is this: Go through a book chapter by chapter, and for each chapter, look for only three things–the beginning, the middle, and the end. Talk about going back to basics! Actually, Dyer suggests looking for the set-up, the conflict, and the resolution, which casts the beginning, middle and end in their more functional lights. Then, with one sentence for each aspect, three sentences per chapter, you’ll roll through a synopsis in no time. Or at least, not much more time than it takes to read your own book.
Going through my own novel this way, I realize I was doing this in grade school when we had to write book reports. We called them summaries back then, but the idea is the same, and the process is the same, too. And writing this synopsis–this summary–of my own book, remembering all those grade-school book reports, is allowing me to read my novel as a reader. That’s a pretty exhilarating experience.
I remember an interview with Tom Franklin in Southern Literary Review, in which he was discussing his novel Smonk. He explains that his editor resisted the novel, kept telling him it was the wrong book to work on at that time. And the interviewer asked why he kept writing it anyway, why he insisted it was the right book. Franklin says, “I knew I was writing the novel that I most wanted to read.”
Going back over my novel now, reading it like a reader and distilling it into a synopsis as though for a book report, I feel the same way. Giddy. Delighted. This is the book I want to read, and it sometimes surprises me that I’m the one who wrote it.
* The title is from a birthday card I have long kept attached to my writing desk: It shows Winnie-the-Pooh scratching his head with a pencil, and underneath are the words, “‘The hardest thing about writing,’ though Pooh, ‘is finding the right words.”