Writers in the Storm

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July 11, 2018

3 Reasons to Embrace the Prickly Synopsis

Orly Konig

There are certain words that make most writers break into a cold sweat. “Synopsis” is one of them.

Until recently, the thought of writing a synopsis would send me into fits of, “screw this, I’m going to become a unicorn farmer.” After all, I’m a pantser, I can’t possibly write about a story I have only a vague idea about.

The first time my agent asked for a proposal that included the first 50 pages and a synopsis, I panicked. Full out, hyperventilating into a bag of gummy bears panic. Once I was done with the gummy bears (and post-gummy Pepto Bismol), I sat down to write what needed to be written.

It was, my friends, a writing-life changing moment!

Here’s what I learned …

1) A synopsis is a brainstorming tool.

When a story idea nestles in my brain, I have various bits and pieces but no idea how they fit with each other. I’ve tried character sketches and scene cards and three-act structure diagrams and pretty much every how-to out there. None work for me. What works for me, is letting the ideas marinate until the story comes together. I open a word document, type “chapter 1” and work things out as I get there.

 So, the idea of writing about a story that was still forming, was slightly south of crazy. First time out was indeed painful. But at one point, I stopped agonizing over knowing what was coming, and let ideas jumble out of my brain. I’ve written before about mind-mapping. Free-flowing with a synopsis is just connecting the dots, where the dots are the branches of the mind-mapping exercise.

By not stressing over the structure, I can play around with ideas. I fantasize where the story could go and I don’t limit myself by rules or expectations.

2) A synopsis is not your novel.

In writing the synopsis, I’m telling my story’s story. I’m looking down at the game-board for my story and guiding the characters along the chutes and ladders. I’m writing from a different POV, and from a different level of intimacy with my story and characters. I don’t worry about whether the story has a sexy first line or a plump middle. I’m not focused on hooks and perfect phrasing.

By not agonizing about wordsmithing the content, I allow the ideas to pour out of my mind and settle onto the game-board as they see fit.

3) A synopsis is not your GPS system.

It doesn’t have to get you to a specific spot, just in a general direction. Sometimes you land on a chute that takes you one way, sometimes it’s a ladder that takes you in the opposite direction. And that’s okay. The point of the synopsis is to give the agent/editor/you a sense of the story’s purpose.

With a synopsis written, my next step is to storyboard the chapters. Before I start to write a chapter, I review the synopsis and what I’ve done in the previous chapter, then sketch out what the next chapter will look like. Sometimes the synopsis is on the money, other times, the chapter that needs to be written is completely different from what I thought would happen next.

The synopsis acts as a prompt, which can be a godsend on days when that blinking cursor tries to hypnotize the words right out of my brain.

The best advice I was given about writing a synopsis: “Relax.”

My advice to you: “Try it.” 

I’m still a free-soloing pantser. But I’ve also discovered the joy of a synopsis sanity saver.

Okay, tell me … are you camp synopsis or would you rather walk on legos than write one? For those who are camp synopsis, do you have any other tips for writing them that will help nudge a reluctant synopsis-writer?

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About Orly

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world where she spent roughly sixteen years working in the space industry. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, a member of the Tall Poppy Writers, and a quarterly contributor to the Writers In The Storm blog.

She’s the author of Carousel Beach (May 2018) and The Distance Home (May 2017).

Connect with Orly online at:

Website: www.orlykonig.com

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36 comments on “3 Reasons to Embrace the Prickly Synopsis”

  1. Orly, this is great. Most of the time I WOULD rather walk on Legos than write a synopsis--and I've had plenty of practice doing that, btw, with my five kids--but you're so right here in saying that the synopsis is not your novel, nor does it lock you into anything--it's just a blueprint for what you want to do. Whenever I write a synopsis, I imagine I'm giving friends the highlights of a movie I've just seen, start to finish, focusing on what's at stake for each of the characters, how the tension builds in the movie, where the climax is, and how things are resolved at the end.

  2. Great post Orly, and Holly I like your analogy. But, but, but...I have a superstitious thing about this - if I write the synopsis first, the story will go dead. the brilliant idea will shrivel and die, and my muse (that wrinkly old lady) will head for more fertile soil.

    Yes, and I have to write them before I write the book, too

    Oh do not tell me you're surprised I'm a bit . . . eccentric?

    1. I had the same worry, Laura. It actually helped me though. Because I had captured the top ideas and brainstormed through some of the "what now" moments, the synopsis helped nudge me through the mushy parts.

    2. I have often wished I had a synopsis/ blueprint for a WIP, but I am such a pantser, and much of the fun of writing for me is the surprises my characters hand me. I learned (long after college where it really would have been valuable) the value of an outline for non-fiction and essays, but for a novel I may have the major conflict in mind but what barriers it presents or how my "folks" are going to get around it--if I know ahead of time, there's no fun in discovery.

  3. The thought of writing a synopsis BEFORE the book sends me screaming for the hills (Oh, wait, I live in the mountains--don't have to go anywhere). I think that's one of my favorite parts of being indie, and a "Plantser." I have ideas about where the story might go, but most of my energy is spent on character development, and once they grab the reins, we're off.
    Not too long ago, a publisher said she was interested in romantic suspense, and would I send her a synopsis for my next book plus a brief outline of the next two. Cringe.
    I have notes for characters, notes for conflict, notes for scenes, but nothing that would lead anyone to call it a synopsis. In fact, I put my notes for one of my books onto the Amazon author page where anyone can see my jumbled writing process.

  4. Synopsis writing carries me back to the tortures of language arts class and the writing of the three paragraph descriptive essay. I hated it then, but it beat into me the principles of being succinct and focusing on important details. Thank you, Miss Miller wherever you are! That said, I still am not in love with synopsis writing. It just feels like such time sucking, ugly step-sister to "real" writing!

    1. I spend a lot of time brainstorming story ideas so for me, the synopsis is now just an extension of that rather than something that's keeping me away from the writing.
      And cheers to teachers like Miss Miller.

  5. I'm one of those rare individuals that actually ENJOYS writing blurbs and synopses. (I know, I know...) But I like how it forces me to narrow in on the story I'm really telling by sticking to the main plot points and seeing how it flows. These days, I write the blurb first, then the story, then the synopsis. But I can see how flipping that around would work too. I love how you approached it as a brainstorming tool! Great advice, Orly.

  6. I laughed at your post, Orly. I just began an advanced novel writing course, and naturally, the first thing it asked for was a synopsis. Agggghhhhh! I wrote one, but knew it was pathetic. Then I was asked to develop the character of my antagonist. Once I started doing that, I realized how my synopsis needed to change. The course is set up so I can edit all my work, including the synopsis, up until the end of the course. Thank heavens. I have no doubt the synopsis will keep morphing until I type that very last sentence of the manuscript. Fingers poised above the keyboard, writers! And.... go!

      1. It's offered by Algonkian Writer services. I attended one of their workshops three years ago, or is it four? - anyway, when I called the manager/owner/mentor about my newly published book, he offered me the course free of charge. Usual cost over $700. Just for letting him know how I had done!

  7. If not for Suzanne Purvis' workshop, I would still fear the synopsis. I took her workshop through margielawson.com and it was a big big big help. I still loathe the synopsis, but it does give me a clearer idea of my story now. I don't write a BIG synopsis, but I find it helped me develop a logline and blurb before I began drafting my current WIP. I call it mini-direction to where I'm going on my WIP.

  8. Orly, thank you not only for this blog but for one of your older ones. I clicked on your mind-mapping link --- terrific! I have been struggling with a "20-point grid" to outline my novel, but believe mind-mapping is much more for me.

    1. Oh that makes me happy!!!! Let me know what you think. And feel free to email me if you want to chat more. I lurve mind mapping!!!! ?

  9. The more tools any of us have, the better - take what you need and leave the rest, as they say. Synopses are hard for me, as are blurbs, one-sentence summaries, and deciding which among possible themes is the main one in a story even when most or all of it is fairly clear.
    I do use extensive outlines on Scrivener, which makes it easier than a basic word processor to organize and keep track of how things fit together, and that might help along with mind-mapping to pick out the synopsis as well.
    Off topic: based on that phrase about free-soloing pantsing, are you a rock climber?

    1. See, now Scrivener scares the words right out of me. ?

      And yes. Although it's my son who's the real climber. The delay in responding is because we're in Atlanta for the youth national championships.

  10. Hi, Orly. My name is Marcia and I am a plotter. That said, I just sent my synopsis and first three chapters per request from an editor. Of course, I thought about what I didn't add that I should have to make the story flow, but I had tweaked it so much I was ready to throw it in the fire barrel. When is a synopsis ever finished? I use mine as a guideline only and tell myself things change daily just like real life. Now that it's sent I'll let myself stew for a few days and then go back and tweak it again. I'm like Laura, my old-lady brain has to have something on paper before I write, and if that's being eccentric, I own it.

  11. I was talking to an agent at a luncheon--not a pitch session--and she asked me to give a verbal synopsis of my WIP (and she did invite me to submit when finished--no guarantees, of course). And somehow, during my reply, I realized the book I started was different than what I originally thought I was writing (pantser). And her feedback gave me the aha! moment. And it changed everything. In a good way. It was the "hook" I needed.

    My point--if one is not sure, run it by a friend, verbally, if possible, and it might just flow.


  12. Again, another piece of wonderful advice, Orly. And I am going to try your mindmapping too! I feel like Laura Drake in that I'm superstitious about writing the synopsis before I've sweated thorough at least a rought first draft. I like dholcomb1's point about finding the "aha" with a verbal synopsis.

  13. I've tried a few...just wind up trying to fit the whole book into it each time, when the idea is to condense the essence into a short recap. But, I WILL master it. I've been trying to do one for my current wip, a short, to create a roadmap and better contain the story. Hah! The synopsis is almost as long as the story.

  14. Oh gosh, I know all your fears. But seriously, a synopsis is not that bad. It can, in fact, be fun. Like Maggie said, I teach a fun and fearless way to approach a synopsis for a submission or for plotting at LWA.

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