Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Attacking the synopsis

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The outline for "Kawataro"

Over the next few days, I’ll be outlining a proposal for a new writing project, which is among both the most exhilarating and most daunting parts of the entire creative process. At this stage, the story could be almost anything, but this sense of possibility is constantly fighting it out with the physical constraints of what I’m trying to produce right now. In the end, I need to come up with a striking proposal of about five pages or so, focusing on the spine of the narrative, with just enough detail and color to grab a potential reader, which is easier said than done. I’ve spoken before about some of the challenges of the synopsis form, which all boil down to one big issue: no story, and I mean no story, sounds all that good when condensed to a short summary. Writing a synopsis represents an informal contract between the author and the reader, whether it’s a friend, an agent, or an editor, long before any legal contract has been signed. I agree to deliver a complete, coherent outline for a story, and the reader agrees to look past its dry summarization of events to see the book it could be.

Or so I’d like to think. In practice, of course, if a synopsis doesn’t grab a reader, it’s hard for it to stand out from a stack of similar proposals, which means that a lot of professional and artistic pressure is being placed on these five pages. Given the stakes, I approach the problem in much the same way as I do any other important writing assignment. A proposal is basically an outline cast into a more readable narrative form, so I deal with it by making another outline. And to create that online? I do an outline of an outline, looser and more ragged, and so on down the line until I end up with the shapeless pile of notes that marks the beginning of most of my story ideas. As usual, these outlines are mostly just a way of spreading out the pain: each individual step in the process is relatively easy in itself, and I gradually refine the result until I end up with something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show to someone else. The upshot is that a lot of thought goes into every line of the resulting proposal, which only includes a fraction of the material that I’ve worked out so far.

A page from the author's notebook

But there’s an obvious danger lurking here as well. A synopsis needs to cover the entire story, including the ending, and there’s always the risk that I’ll think through the plot so thoroughly that I get bored of it. This is the problem with any kind of outline, and it’s especially pronounced for a synopsis, which reduces an amorphous web of ideas into a few neatly typed paragraphs. Once the story is on the page in a clean narrative form, you start to feel obliged to stick with it, especially once other people have seen it and signed off. There’s no good solution to this dilemma, in which the practical needs of the publishing business collide with the equally pragmatic requirements of a writer who needs to sustain his interest in a project over many weeks and months. In my experience, though, the very brevity of the synopsis is an asset: it’s just too short to cover everything, and important elements of the plot will inevitably be left unexplored. (I wrote City of Exiles after delivering a detailed synopsis to my editor, for instance, and it still left me with enough freedom that hugely important plot points, including the biggest twist in the entire book, could evolve up until the last minute.)

In short, a synopsis can be a real pain in the ass, but it can also be strangely liberating. I’ve learned to think of a proposal as a review of a book that doesn’t exist, which is how Borges often structured his short stories, and it has one enormous advantage over preparing a synopsis for a novel I’ve already written: I can pretend that I’m reviewing the best book in the world. Later, there will be compromises, wrong turns, places where the words on the page seem to shrivel and die compared to the version in my imagination. (As Joan Didion says: “The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.”) But for now, I’m describing the novel of my dreams, and the real challenge of writing a synopsis is keeping that sense of promise alive throughout the potentially deadening process of reducing those dreams to their Cliffs Notes version. That’s really the crux of any kind of writing at all; here, it happens to be a little more stark than usual. At times, it can feel like a chore, but there are also moments when you see the full potential of your work for the first time. Because it’s no accident that “synopsis” means “to see everything at once.”

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2013 at 9:06 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. Hi Alec, just wanted to drop a note to say that I read these posts faithfully every time they come out, and that I find them informative and entertaining every time. I’ve started to run a writing workshop for 15-year-olds at the school where I work, and I’ve recommended that they read your blog as a matter of course. Keep up the good work, and many thanks for your contribution to writing.

    E. A. Hughes

    October 16, 2013 at 12:07 pm

  2. Wow—thanks! I’m so glad to hear it, and good luck with the writing workshop—it sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun.


    October 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm

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