Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Novel in a Nutshell - the Curse of the Synopsis

Trying ot get your novel in a nutshell? Good luck!
Photo by potkettle, Wikimedia Commons
Oh, how I hate synopses!

You have, say, 90,000 words in your novel and the synopsis is to be no more than a page (two, if you’re lucky). Say that’s a 500-word synopsis. You have to lose 89,500 of your total, precious words that you’ve spent the last several months crafting into something worthy of the name ‘novel’. Ditching the words for numbers for once, that means you have to cut your novel to less than 0.6% of its original length. Ouch.

Let’s just think about your story. How many characters do you have? Maybe twenty? And okay, only two of those are the hero and heroine but then you have the villain and the hero’s vengeful ex-girlfriend and the heroine’s ailing mother, not to mention her needy best friend and the false romantic lead. So that’s seven, the absolute minimum you have to get in those 500 words, all of whom have to be introduced.

Oh, and you can’t tackle the key plot twist without introducing that other character (perhaps the hero’s twin brother who’s in the army and is unexpectedly home on leave) who isn’t in himself significant but who has to be in there because without him and his background that clever twist you introduced to the plot will just sound plain implausible.

Even allowing for this it might not be quite so daunting if it was a straightforward telling of the story but it isn’t. You have to make sure that you get the character’s motivations in, otherwise the stupid and misguided things they do will just appear… well, stupid and misguided. (because obviously he only did whatever it was because his childhood experience of poverty leads him to place a false value on money which our heroine has to understand before she can help to overcome him.)

My particular bugbear is that I have to give away the clever twists in my plot. Whether I’m approaching a publisher or submitting to a competition - how can anyone recognise my talent with the twist in the tale or appreciate my cliffhanging situations when they know what’s going to happen in the end? I only pray they read the synopsis last.

So how do you tackle this monstrous task? There are those who say that you should do it first so that you can get to the crux of your story. Then there are those who say you should do it last because your story is bound to change out of all recognition and you’ll just have to do it again. I’ve tried both ways; I’ve even tried writing it in the middle. Trust me; no way is any easier than any other.

It’s a necessary evil, of course, but word for word it takes more effort and energy than that full-length novel. A whole novel, in less than the length of a blog post? Of all the parts of my writing it’s the one I hate most.


  1. A necessary evil indeed, Jennifer! I try to keep to the main character's story (or both if it's male and female POV) and only what affects her/them. I mention any other important character briefly in passing but again, only if they directly affect the main character in a major way. And I try to be a bit vague about the ending in the way I write it! It's worked so far. Interestingly, I didn't want to read the synopses from the SAW comp until I'd read the actual entry first.

  2. Rosemary - thanks for the tips. I always try to put too much in but I suspect you're right and that less is more!