WRITING A SYNOPSIS: THE MASTER FORMULA… (sorta)

A little while – okay eons –  ago I wrote a piece called In Defence of the Synopsis where I confessed my dirty little secret: I quite like writing synopses. And after pleading their case – eloquently no? – I promised I would write a piece detailing my method. Problem was, as with all of my writing, I don’t really know what my method is, so I had to figure it out, break it down and wrap it up in a big shiny, yet easy to unwrap bow for you. That’s my excuse for taking so long and I’m sticking with it.

I’m going to give you a formula. I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as E=MC squared but who knows by the end of the post… What it will do, with any luck, is lay out a clear cut and easy to memorise approach and once you have it down, it’ll hopefully give you the confidence and understanding to allow you to play and invert as you see fit.

Before we kick off I do want to remind you of what I said in the last post : This is part of your presentation, if its badly written, leaves gaping confusion in the reader and – the worst sin –  holds back the best of your work, then you’ve just significantly increased your chances of being rejected.

A formula is not writing. You still have to make good sentences, choose the right details and set the right tone. You’re a writer asking someone to invest in your skill, you never get to leave that out of the equation. I’ll try and go into this in slightly more detail as we go along. But you know.. YOU’RE A WRITER..

Now to the formula. We’re going to start with the magic number 3: three paragraphs, each one containing three sentences. And that’s it.

This might seem strict, but the aim here is to get you thinking in concise terms – the most concise terms you can, because this is a difficult concept for writers who normally have pages to explore with. It’s the easiest thing in the world to add later on, embellish the language, develop the scene you’ve chosen; you’re probably already pretty good at this. What you suck at (what we all suck at) is shoehorning the 100k story we’ve just written into 500 teeny tiny little k-less words. Otherwise known as less than a page.

The great thing about keeping it this tight isn’t the size it ends up – you will more than likely expand on it to a greater or lesser extent –  it’s that when you have so little room to work with you suddenly realise just how crucial what you choose to put in, is. And this is where we all really fall down in writing synopses. We know our writing so well, every little detail is scored into our minds and we know how each little thing leads on to a thousand other little things. And we love them all. How can we break the chain? Pick out just a few?

Answer: by having three paragraphs and three lines only in each paragraph.

Once you have that framework as I said adding more flesh is easy-peasy and fun. If it helps you can keep another page open or notepad by your side, use it to make your notes, the details that you considered and rejected. Some might later on make it back in.

Right now though, you need to learn how to make that framework and this is another good reason to keep it super tight. I’ve seen guides which ramble on for longer than the synopses themselves. Memorising and repeating processes that convoluted doesn’t really help anyone. This is easy to remember, and eventually will be easy to do. Sorta..but like I say you might find the process kind of addictive, simply because of how it gets you thinking about your own story.

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Paragraph One:  The Set Up

I’m going to use Spiderman –  the origins story – because pretty much everyone knows it. Now if this were a book and not a film its fairly easy to know there are a lot of elements, side stories and sub plots, that might well get a great deal more exploration than they do in the films (although they’ve made enough versions to cover most of it). Like Harry and Oliver, Peter is an orphan. Parents lost in mysterious circumstances. How much does he remember? Is he curious? Or oblivious like so many teens? How does living with his aunt and uncle affect him? How much do they know?

All fascinating, but no matter how crucial you think this is to your book, to the unique angle you have brought to the tale by alternating with his Aunt May’s pov, you need to peel away those leaves and find the main story branch. Easiest way to do this is to think of three questions:

Who is your MC? What does he want? What is the event that changes his world or in simpler terms, starts your story?

So it doesn’t matter that alternating chapters belong to Aunt May, this is Peter’s story and what he wants isn’t to help Aunt May with the dishes. It’s Mary Jane, the girl next door. And the event that changes his world is a spider bite.

This is the other reason I chose Spiderman. Honestly films tend to have a very basic three act structure and Hollywood blockbusters are usually textbook cases. If it helps try it out with a few of those first. Getting the synopsis right is really  about getting into a mode of thinking. Try Starwars or Thor or When Harry Met Sally. In the latter you actually have two MC’s. Once you are familiar with the form having an essemble cast to introduce won’t phase you much.

Peter Parker is the typical high school nerd. In love with the girl next door, the one who doesn’t know he’s alive, he’s just trying to keep his head down and his underpants on. When a spider bites him on a class trip to the labs of Oscorp, he thinks it’s the very least of his problems. The next morning he wakes up in sweats, shaking, terrified he’s gonna die, instead he web slings his lunch tray across the cafeteria.

This sentence illustrates a key approach when brevity is your master; one that might also help many writers who struggle with that basic writing concept – show don’t tell.

~and just trying to keep his head down and his underpants on ~

You’ve probably heard and seen lots of advice on this and much of it probably includes, from naysayers and fans alike, the contention that ‘show takes more words than tell’. Here I’m going to blow that out of the water. It can take more words but its certainly not built into the concept and show at play in a synopsis is a great way of conveying a lot of information in only a few words. ‘Underpants on’ tells us he is at risk of being bullied which helps build a picture of who he is and what he looks like – wee and weedy; it has a self-depreciating and humorous tone; and it creates a vivid image in the readers head that ‘avoid the bullies’ simply doesn’t. Remember the old adage a picture says a 1000 words? Here it’s doing three things while taking up the same amount of space, but that might be because three is the magic number for this post 😀 I could have thrown in the subtle allusion to superhero’s that pants always draws even if Spidey did manage to avoid Superman’s inside out fetish..

spiderman crotch

Paragraph 2:  Consequences

As his powers develop – super sight, super strength and super ego – Peter is no longer typical, no longer a nerd and no longer keeping his head down. Unable to resist testing out his new abilities he starts getting into trouble and his uncle decides its time for a father son chat. Heady with power, Peter callously reminds him he’s not his father and walks awayThen a shot rings out – and any chance Peter has to take back his cruel words is gone.

This  started out with five sentences. I moved the original opening line up to the first part because it easily played into the line about the spiders bite and really is more part of the initial set up –  the sudden development of powers –  than the consequences – what he does with those powers. With consequences I tend to think not of actions but reactions and much of this will deal with the internal – the arrogance of Peter, the concern of his uncle. If it helps, since we’re in the formula mode think of it as 3:1. Pick one major consequence, in this case his uncles death, as it is a pivotal moment around which his story is shaped, and break it down into three steps leading from the inciting incident we ended the first paragraph with.  Break those steps into –reaction, action, reaction. That way we are leading off straight from what we already have and it keeps the emphasis on what he is feeling, rather than trying to shoehorn more action in. The temptation here is to talk about his attempts to make money from wrestling, being screwed by the boss, leading to choosing not to intervene – and you’ve seen the movie, but if you hadn’t and you had to fit all that coherently into one sentence and make it clear why his uncle is so concerned? One consequence – everything else serves that. So

reaction – Peter’s arrogance

action – Uncle has words with him

reaction – he walks away and thus is not there to save him.  

spiderman walking

That still leaves four sentences though. So you start to look at rewording, and elimination. All the sentences really need to be there. I can’t get rid of the last sentence – that shot is crucial, the ultimate consequence of his behaviour. I can lose the last part ‘any chance Peter has to take back his cruel words is gone’ and I think that makes it stronger. It was a little overdramatic and well obvious… doh.. But that still doesn’t bring it down to three lines. So can I condense ideas and make two out the first three?  ‘unable to resist testing out his new abilities he starts getting into trouble’ is really covered by ‘no longer keeping his head down’. I like the repetition of the first sentence and I like the way the ‘head down’ part echoes the first paragraph. It emphasizes the fact he has changed and ties it to the rest of that sentence without having to spell it out. We might naturally draw the conclusion that he might be taking those bullies on now.

Paragraph 3:  The Resolution

Determined to avenge his uncle’s death Peter becomes Spiderman, anonymous defender of the weak, hunting the dark alleys, he becomes both hero and villain. The world has finally woken up and noticed him including the girl next door, but when a deranged killer  discovers who he is, it puts her in deadly peril. Spiderman wins the day and the girl, but the cost is Peter Parker. He knows he can never put her or anyone he loves in danger again. She can never know who he truly is.

Again we have too many lines. Five. There is quite a lot going on here – from revenge to growing up to love to loneliness. The ending always deals with the themes, the driving emotional core of the story and most good stories will have a few things going on. Sweeping them all up in one big bundle risks trivialising and thus making the ending fall a bit flat. THIS IS BAD!!! Many agents and editors cite that the only reason they read the synopsis at all is to see how the writer ends their story. So making it sing like the caged bird freed really is important. What is the real pull here? Revenge? Responsibility? Or loneliness? I think love and loss always pull on a reader more than responsibility. I mean that might be the dullest word ever. It’s like ending the Departed with a shampoo cleaning. Plus it is actually built in to the concept of loss. His loneliness is the ultimate consequence of his journey and the responsibility he is now willing to bear.

Moreover, this way we link up the consequence – losing Mary Jane –  with the driving desire we identified in paragraph one. Theme and plot aren’t always obviously synchronised but when pushed for space its handy to find the place they intersect. If issues raised in the opening are never resolved that could set a red flag flying for the agent.

‘anonymous defender of the weak, hunting the dark alleys, he becomes both hero and villainis a likely a case of killing your darlings. I like the way it sounds, and it does sum up who Spidey is but it doesn’t really add anything. The language you choose does matter. Not because you need to show off your linguistic gymnastics but because you have a chance to show that you understand the genre you’re writing in.

In this instance the language I have chosen is quite cheesy, clichéd at times even. ‘Deadly peril’ is a phrase I am happy to admit I have never used before. But this is a superhero tale, its meant to be a bit cheesy and over the top. We have men in spandex and villains who think its easier to kill with long death monologues than semi automatic weapons.

Likewise if you are writing a  thriller you might want a darker tone, using those showy touches to introduce some stark graphic detail. Match your tone to your genre.

That still leaves me one line too many. I could reword, editing out, ‘the cost is Peter Parker’, and putting in ‘she can never know who he is’ instead. I kind of like the former line though, the second seems to fall a little flat as the last note and I feel the duality of man/superman is a key concept and lure of the superhero genre.

spiderman identity

Peter Parker is the typical high school nerd; in love with the girl next door, the one who doesn’t know he’s alive, he’s just trying to keep his head down and his underpants on. When a spider bites him on a class trip to the labs of Oscorp, he thinks it’s the very least of his problems. The next morning he wakes up in sweats, shaking, terrified he is gonna die, instead he web slings his lunch tray across the cafeteria.

As his powers develop – super sight, super strength and super ego – Peter is no longer typical, no longer a nerd and no longer keeping his head downWorried, his uncle decides its time for a father-son chat, but heady with power, Peter callously reminds him he’s not his father and walks awayThen a shot rings out.

Determined to avenge his uncle’s death Peter becomes Spiderman. The world has finally woken up and noticed him including the girl next door, but when a deranged killer discovers who he is, it puts her in deadly peril. Spiderman saves the day and the girl, but Peter knows now that she can never be his.  

And that’s it. As you can see its pretty basic. There are some agents who really do want it as tight as this but most will be happy to accept up to a page. This gives you lots of room to do what you do best – add, embellish, waffle. The key here is to remember that this is your frame. Don’t deviate from it. Don’t start adding subplots, extra characters, try to  shoehorn in more themes. Work on adding to what you have. Put in some detail about how Mary Jane is put in peril,  his attempt to profit from his new powers in the wrestling ring.

So the formula

3 x 3 = Hot dang I finally got it!!!!!

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