An effective synopsis is one of the mightiest tools in the writer’s toolbox and yet even experienced authors worry about how to create a great one.
The key is for the author to mine the story from their book. Yes, he or she needs to relay the plot, including the ending. But that’s only a small part of what I mean by story. When a friend tells you entertainingly of her day, she doesn’t just list what happened, but how she experienced it; she employs her point of view. A synopsis too should somehow embody voice, mood and character.
We are good at telling the story of our lives. For a start, we are good curators of the past, us humans. We are archivists: photo album creators, email filers, certificate framers, decades-long storers of children’s creations, diary-keepers. When I get to the end of my life, I plan to leave a lot of evidence behind (teacups, snippets of children’s hair, precious books, boxes of magpie finds, a trunk of vintage clothes, love letters, a few ticket stubs, a little chunk of slate, some paintings and a lot more besides).
Even so, what this evidence will amount to, when I’m gone, is a pile of signifiers only. The me they added up to, and the life they mark out in clues and remains, will be illegible. Yes, those who love me and know me well will be able to look at a painting and know where I created it or bought it; leaf through my letters and remember the emotions they describe. But when they pick up a treasured teacup, they won’t know the precise way in which it pleased me – how my finger fitted perfectly into its handle, how its weight echoed the weight of some other archived memory. Each abandoned possession will be a word, or a phrase, or even a sentence: but together they won’t make a story. The story resides in me.
So it is in an author’s synopsis: it isn’t enough to pile up the signifiers, to assemble the evidence. (The character traits, the plot devices, the significant events, the settings and ideas.) How does it feel, too, to live this story, to read it?
This blog post was inspired by three beautiful synopses I just read by authors of mine, so I am very clear today on how to get this right. In reading the synopses, I was immersed totally, even though each was only a few pages long. All offered complete reading experiences, almost as satisfying as short stories. Unlike a short story, however, a synopsisdoes not concern itself with its own internal beauty. It lacks precision, cleverness in its construction: if a short story is an intricate watch, a synopsis would be a watch in pieces, being put together with care, on the watchmaker’s bench. Still beautiful, still complete, but not yet without mysteries, gaps between, things to be worked out.
Each synopsis arrived with an evocative title and opened with an effortlessly engaging summary of the book: the authors communicated what is at stake in their novels and why we will desperately turn the pages. Emotional truths were conveyed through a web of impressions and extracts: snatches of the book, lines of sample dialogue and shafts of light onto the protagonists’ points of view. Each featured illuminating character sketches and best of all the cast were compared one to another, because characters in novels reflect off one another, shine off each other’s surfaces, react to one another’s actions and ideas.
One of the synopses opened with a prologue so awful and mystifying, I had no choice but to race through. All of them were relayed with good pace – enough to draw me in, involve me, keep me gripped. The authors unwound the plot judiciously, opening up revelations in the right order, at the right times. The slow dripping tap of a novel is sped up in a synopsis as in time lapse photography, so that by the end of the first page we are already standing shoulder-high in deep water.
Time lapse photography: the flashing past of scenes and of dramatic highlights. We are back to life stories again; people say ours might flash before our eyes at the end, and that it will be precise in detail, whilst giving a sense of the whole. What a compelling idea it is, the ‘life review’; a greatest hits and misses of what we loved, what damage we wrought, what remains. What it was all about, perhaps? The trick of a good synopsis might be to stand at the end of the novel and to look back with perspective: what really mattered here? What is worth holding on to, in the end? What small detail, what larger message? How can I explain, how it felt, to hold the teacup, and why it mattered so much?