Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Dreaded Synopsis -- A love/hate relationship!

Does anyone like synopses? I never did. In fact, writing a synopsis was the part of contest entries I dreaded the most. Invariably, I'd struggle to create an overview of a story I hadn't developed much beyond the first three chapters.

Sure I knew how the story would end. But what about the sagging middle? Usually I had a limited vision of the direction of the romance, the escalating conflict and the villain’s role in trying to thwart the hero and heroine from achieving their goals.

So basically, I could sum up my various synopses in four lines:
~Stuff happens.
~The hero and heroine fall in love.
~The villain causes problems.
~The hero and heroine overcome the problems, attain their goal/goals and live happily ever after.

Generally, my synopses would start with a description of the main characters, then I’d throw in some backstory, type “the story begins” and add the opening. The middle would be a tap dance with a bunch of general blah, blah, blahs. Using vague references to “things got worse” and “they started to feel a sense of attraction,” I’d wing my way to the climax and resolution. Looking back, I seemed more concerned about formatting the synopsis correctly rather than ensuring the contest judge realized I understood what was needed to make the story work.

Thank goodness my synopses writing skills eventually improved, although I still shudder when I'm faced with a blank screen. For years, I thought the only reason for a synopsis was to explain the story to the judges. Recently, my opinion has changed.

Now I see the synopsis as a tool I can use to improve the story I’m brainstorming. Before I dedicate three to four months writing a manuscript that ends up flawed, I can ensure I’ve incorporated the major elements for a satisfying and saleable read.

I start by jotting down the basic outline of the plot. Then I include the turning points and weave in a bit of emotion. Internal and external conflict and motivation are stirred into the pot. Goals, set backs and black moment are clearly defined.

After listening to Michael Hauge at last year’s RWA Conference, I now add my hero’s internal wound and misperceived opinion of who he is at the beginning of the book. By the end, I test the strength of my character arc by how the hero has changed and grown.

What about my hero and heroine’s greatest fear? Is that mentioned in the synopsis, and do I explain how it will be faced and conquered in the story? Layer by layer, I add the points that turn a so-so story into one that hopefully engages the reader, whether contest judge or acquiring editor.

Do the pieces always fit? Of course not. Often the sequence of the story has to be changed. Pacing needs to be tightened, characters cut, danger increased. But by roughing the story out in the synopsis, I can see the whole, make the changes, add the missing elements and end when I’m satisfied the ten or fifteen or twenty page synopsis can be expanded into a full-length novel.

My advice? Give the dreaded synopsis a second chance. It may turn out to be an effective tool in your writing chest.

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings!

PS: The photo above was taken to announce a booksigning for my third novel, MIA: MISSING IN ATLANTA, which will be held at Omega Books on March 13th. Karen Duncan, on the right, owns the store and always hosts events that are fun for customers and writers alike.

MIA is the story of a U.S. Army Captain’s search for a missing girlfriend he met while on R&R in Atlanta. I wrote the novel when my son was deployed for his second tour in Iraq and dedicated the book to the brave men and women in uniform. To support our troops, I’m donating free copies of my book to military personnel in the name of each customer who buys MIA at the signing. The books will be distributed to soldiers traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, and the customers will be invited to inscribe personal messages to the soldiers.

When I talked to the major who works at the airport, he was thrilled with the idea and said hundreds of soldiers—often as many as 700--pass through Hartsfield-Jackson each day. Many of them have hours to kill between flights. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy having a book to read along with the good wishes of people who appreciate the sacrifices they make so our country can remain free. God bless our military and God bless the USA!


Kathy at Sumballo said...

Thanks for the advice. I'm hanging onto it as a valuable reminder. Thank you!

Debby Giusti said...

Thanks, Kathy, for stopping by!

Tina M. Russo said...

LOL, stuff happens. This is good.

I hate them myself.

But as a side note, as a U.S Army VET, I say heartily agree with your sentiment

Debby Giusti said...

Hey, Tina, thanks for your help today! And thanks for your service to our country.

Seeker friends may not know that we have two gals who served in the Armed Forces--Tina and Cara! Thanks, ladies. My hat's off to you!!!


Missy Tippens said...

Great post, Debby. I really need to learn to use a synopsis better! I'll definitely use your ideas.

Thank you!

Janet Dean said...

Debby, I'm thrilled with your post today. Now that I need a synopsis to sell by proposal, you've laid it all out beautifully. I'm not a seat of the panster so the synopsis is a great tool to plan then write the book.

Thanks so much for the great post and for giving our troops free copies of your book! That's awesome.


Hannah said...

that is really awesome about giving copies of your book to soldiers in the atlanta airport! i'm guessing you might get some really neat responses to that! what a great idea! hsmuda[at]gmail[dot]com

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Deb, good advice! It's hard for creative, artsy sorts to step over the line into the more technical writing necessary for a good synopsis.

We don't tend to be 'cut and dried' people, LOL!

And ditto the tip of my cap to our two Veterans. You girls rock, totally.

Faith, talent, beauty and brains.



Debby Giusti said...

Hi Missy, Janet and Hannah! Thanks for stopping by.

Missy, I finished your book last night and LOVED it!!! What a heartwarming read with a great twist at the end.

Janet, selling on proposal is a new ball game, isn't it? And then we have to set our own deadlines! That's the tough part.

Hannah, I hope the troops like the books and the little messages the folks write in them. My son is always touched when a stranger thanks him for his service. It's often the little things that mean the most!


Katherine Harms said...

I have always feared writing a synopsis. I have written a few, and I hated every one of them. You have made me see how creating the synopsis can help me craft a better story. I have not been able to use an outline successfully, because it seems so stark, but writing a synopsis is more like writing the story itself. I think this idea will work for me.

Julie Lessman said...

Gosh, Deb, great (and helpful) post!! In fact, I'm gonna print this sucker off and post it in my office!! I will be getting ready to write the dreaded synopsis for my next series proposal very soon, and I am shaking in my boots!! Thanks for the encouraging info.

And cannot WAIT to read MIA: Missing in Atlanta. In fact, it's burning a hole in my counter right now because I have one book before it ...


Mary Connealy said...

MIA was fun and fast paced, As always Deb's given us a great read.

I think of a book, laid out as Three Explosions and a conclusion.

That's it. An explosive opening. It can be emotionally explosive but I prefer real fireworks.
one third of the way through another BIG BANG, then a the 2/3 point again BOOM, then the end needs to be the huge black All-Is-Lost moment before we wrap up the happy ending.

So, this should be in your synopsis.
Character sketch, the three explosions and the conclusion and if you don't HAVE three explosions, then blow something up, baby.

Mary Connealy said...

And Debby, that's such a sweet, thoughtful thing to donate those books. How many times does someone get stuck in an airport.
OF course there are usually book stores but what if...there was a take one-leave one book box in every airport? This could be huge!!!

Debby Giusti said...

I'll remember your three explosions the next time I brainstorm. Great tip! I'm always looking for new ways to make my stories better.

I agree about starting and ending with a bang. But an explosion is even better!!!

Debby Giusti said...

Ruth, sounds like you're in the I-hate-synopses group!

Janet Dean said...

Selling on proposal will be a different ball game but you've given me great advice, Debby, about setting deadlines. Can't wait to read MIA!

Mary, thanks for sharing your method. I love its simplicity! The Seekers are great resources.


Debby Giusti said...

Katherine, I hope my post helps you write your next synopsis. Sometimes I think of it as a type of short story that picks up the major points of the novel. All the important info needs to be in place for the "story" to work.

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Julie, you won't have a bit of trouble with your next proposal! Your book is on my nightstand . . . can't wait! Love that cover! Did you pose as the model? :)

Debby Giusti said...

My daughter and her hubby have a time-share with a major hotel chain. There's always a bookshelf in the laundry room where folks leave books they've read for others to pick up and enjoy. The last couple of times we vacationed with them, I've left books. Wonder how many people end up reading them?

Missy Tippens said...

Mary said to blow something up. What she really means it to kill someone off! Yep, gotta drop a dead body in there for your explosion. :)


Ausjenny said...

Debby love the leaving the books at the airport for the services.

I enjoyed reading the synopsis post.
as a reader (and tv viewer) I do find them to be good to read at times. especially if its a series and its been awhile since i read the last book it can refresh the mind.

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Ausjenny! Thanks for your comments! Okay, I need to ask you something. Explain your name . . . are you from Australia? Great country with wonderful people! We've known lots of super Aussies in the military.

Mary Connealy said...

Well, of course someone dies in the explosion, Missy. That is so obvious I didn't feel it needed to be spelled out. :)

A near miss can work too, if the heroine is a bit singed and has, perhaps, some permanent hearing loss.

Her hair should still be lovely of course.

Debby Giusti said...

I always think back to your opening scene in PETTICOAT RANCH! Oh, my gosh! That was great.

Wait a minute! It's a 2007 copyright, which means you're entering PR in contests. And I'm entering contests as well.

Yikes! I'm competing against you!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Debby...LOVED this synopsis article. Writing them is like torture for me. I'm sure once I get a better handle on how to synopsize instead of ramble (lol!)I'll enjoy writing them more. This post will help with that.

I LOVE the idea you're doing with giving the books at Hartsford. I flew out of there on my way to Paris and then India while on a media mission following the tsunami. A group of soldiers were coming home from Iraq and another group passing them to leave. One group was down, streaming across the atrium on the lower level and the other group was standing around the entire upper wall of the atrium, clapping and cheering for the other group.

Then EVERYONE in the airport stopped what they were doing, even the workers, and started clapping, cheering and whistling for both the soldiers leaving and those returning.

Seemed like it went on for a half an hour. Some of the soldiers had tears in their eyes. Especially those coming home.

One of THE most touching things I've ever experienced.

I wish I lived near an airport that did that.



Debby Giusti said...

Every time I'm in the airport it's swarming with military. And lots of times the cheers and claps resound. Glad you could see all the spirit. It always chokes me up!

Ausjenny said...

yes im an aussie
i use to be jenny from australia and it got a bit much to type so i then became ausjenny. most of my emails are ausjenny (some have 44 on them after my favourite south african cricketer) Also there are so many Jennys around and in most boards groups etc there is often on so its easy to distinquish me so i use Ausjenny
im from South Australia (where we have forgotten what rain is so it seems)

Debby Giusti said...

Ausjenny! Thanks for telling us about you! Love your country!

We've had a long, dry spell in Georgia, but things have been better recently. God must have heard our prayers!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey, Debby. Great post! To me, writing a synopsis is like stuffing an elephant into an overnight bag. It's really HARD! There's so much information I want them to know but not enough space (usually you're limited to 5 pages or less). I really hate that.

However, I think it's neat that your feelings about synopses have changed and you can see them as a tool. I do think they're easier if you write them BEFORE you write the book.

And BTW, I found out what the HOD reader's luncheon is, I just haven't found out WHERE it is. The Hunstville library??? The HOD website doesn't say.

Julie Lessman said...

Debbie said: "Your book is on my nightstand ... can't wait! Love that cover! Did you pose as the model?" :)

Are you taking that prescription cold medicine again, Deb? Geez Louise, I didn't want to pose for that cover, I wanted to shoot it! Then I could have seen "Collin" in person -- hubba, hubba!:) I have his model head shot pasted to my cube wall at work for ... uh, inspiration.

By the way, I actually did receive an e-mail from the female model on the cover! Her name is Mary, and she is an Irish-Catholic girl, just like Faith! Very cool.


Debby Giusti said...

Hi Melanie,
So glad you'll be at the HOD Reader's Luncheon. It's held at the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville. I'll look for you and give you a big Seekerville hug! It'll be great to finally meet in person.

Debby Giusti said...

So did you just write that you have male model pinups in your office? Or did I read that wrong? :)

How cool that Mary, the model, emailed you. I hope she bought lots of copies of your book!

Mary Connealy said...

You talked to your cover model, Julie? that seems so cool to me.
I think my 'cover models' are just ... well ... not people, you know...computer generated.
But there are lovely hands on Calico Canyon. Those could be someone's hands, I spose. I wonder if 'Miss Hands' will bother to phone?

Mary Connealy said...

I haven't entered many contests, Debby and the ones I have won are categorized so we shouldn't face each other.
Hope not.
How would anyone judge between a contemporary suspense and a historical western?
How do you compare stories like that?

Debby Giusti said...

Some contests lump all inspirational stories together! It does make it hard to judge between two vastly different reads.

I hope Miss Hands calls!

Debby Giusti said...

It's late on the east coast, ladies. Thanks for a great day of blogging fun!

Happy writing!

Ausjenny said...

Debby this part of my country has been in drought for about 2 years now. we did get some good spring rains but it didn't last.
Parts of Queensland hadn't had serious rain for upwards of 7 years and now they are flooded.
same with new south wales.
But South Australia and the southern Part of Victoria are really crying out for rain.
Feb we had less than 1/8th of an inch. Jan was so hot i dont remember rain at all much either.
We desparately need the autumn rains they are promising or it will be another bad year. Thankfully there is a big supply of ground water but fresh rain water is needed.
but i do love my country.
althought some Air conditioning would go down a treat its almost reached 100 today

stampedwithgrace said...

thanks for sharing!

virginagain.blogspot.com said...

Thanks so much for this post. The synopsis for my first novel is terrible. I was looking at it the other day thinking it looked really dry and uninteresting. I think I'll use your suggestions to give it new life. Maybe then this book will sell! Thanks again! ~Jae

Lorna said...

Debby,thank you for sharing the great advice. I'll give your ideas a try.

Pam Hillman said...

Debby, what an awesome idea!

Since I'm in another state, do you think it might be possible for me (or anyone else!!)to call the store on the 13th and order a book or two to be donated?