You’ve Sold Yourself, What Next?

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about the hardest thing that I’d ever written, Olivia Berrier commented that the thing she’d always found the hardest thing to write was the synopsis

These can sometimes be just as difficult as a covering letter, just how do you summarise your 150,000 word opus into just one side of A4? If you could do the story justice in just five hundred words, then it’s likely you would never have written the thing in the first place.

The best place to start is to think about what you’re trying to achieve with a synopsis. What is the end goal of this plot summary?

If the purpose of the covering letter is to sell yourself, and the sample chapters are to sell your style of writing, then the synopsis is to sell your ability to construct a story.

At the same time, it shows the skill of being able to effectively communicate a specific set of information in a brief, concise format. It might not be exactly what an agent would be looking for, but it doesn’t hurt in any walk of life to be able to do this.

For me, and the way I write, a synopsis of the book is fairly easy to write, mostly because it’s already written.

The novel itself is a synopsis, albeit quite a lengthy one. You just need to boil it down and reduce it to just the basic parts. Sounds easy, but of course it isn’t, because the art of boiling it down is basically butchering your piece of work, taking out every single piece of beautiful prose.

Think of writing a synopsis as giving directions to someone coming to visit your house from another city. You might want to tell them that they’ll pass the school you used to go to, but it won’t help them get to you, instead you should concentrate on the key landmarks, signposts and road features.

By all means, tell them that they’ll pass a school on their right hand side, but they don’t need to know you were imprisoned there for five years in the late nineties.

For me, though, writing a synopsis is even easier than that. When I was originally starting Memories of a Murder I had a plan. I knew how many chapters there were going to be, and what was going to happen in each of them. Mostly.

I had folders on my PC called things like: ‘4Robert Fucks Frederick’ and ’13 Gary Argues With Nicole and Then Passes Out’. They’re hardly award winning bits of prose, and they wouldn’t even cut the mustard in a synopsis, but they were the main plot point in that chapter.

Start with these, but then boil them down a bit more. For instance, for ‘Chapter 4, Robert Fucks Frederick’, when I first wrote it, I wrote some key bullet points at the top of the page, all the key points I had to tick off through the writing. They were:

  • Harry and Frederick argue over Harry’s sexuality and Frederick’s work and Frederick heads home to England.
  • Robert waits for an interview with Ernest. He is left alone with Frederick and they end up having sex.
  • Afterwards, Frederick convinces Ernest to give Robert a job.

It didn’t matter when I was writing it how I got there, as long as I got there (that was the creative bit) in approximately four thousand words.

I eventually ended up adding some more bits in during the edit, so the synopsis for this chapter ends up becoming:

Tricia warns Harry that he must keep his sexuality and his relationship with Frederick a secret if he wants to make it in Hollywood. After spending the night together, Harry and Frederick argue about this, and about the screenplay that Frederick is supposed to be writing. After the argument, Frederick flies home to England to gain some funding from his grandfather. While there, he meets Robert Curtis who is waiting to have an interview with Ernest. While Ernest deals with some important pieces of paperwork, Robert has sex with Frederick and manipulates him into convincing Ernest into hiring him.

There was so much more in that chapter, and stuff that comes up later on in the book as an important plot point in an argument between Harry and Frederick, however later on in the synopsis that can be covered by: “Harry and Frederick argue over Frederick’s dalliance with Robert and the two of them split up.”

Dalliance. Another good word.

You don’t need to be specific, you’re just relaying the bare facts – however, that doesn’t mean you need to let your adolescent writer take chart (“And then he went to the shops and then he bought a piece of chewing gum and then he started to chew it and then it didn’t taste very good so he spit it out and then he stood on it, and then…”), remember this is still an example of your writing, don’t let it become too dry, you must be passionate about your plot.

I hope some of this can help some people to write their own synopsis. It’s certainly helped me refine mine and to keep a focus on the important facts.

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