Writing the Dread Synopsis

I recently accomplished something I had thought was impossible. Or at least not likely to happen till I had many more books in print than I do now. I’d heard of it happening to other people, of course, but I’d never known anyone who did it.

I just sold a fantasy trilogy—three books—on a synopsis and a scene.

Now this didn’t happen because of my synopsis. Mostly it came about because my excellent editor, Julia Richardson, was pushing for it. And the fact that Songs of Power sold through, and went to a second printing. That A Matter of Profit has been very well reviewed probably helped. But I do think it would have been harder for Julia to bring this off if I hadn’t finally learned to write a synopsis that works, instead of tripping over its own feet and dying.

Writing a good synopsis isn’t something that came naturally to me. I struggled for years writing synopses that were absolutely dreadful. They reeked. They stank. Or more precisely they were awkward, over-detailed, and failed to convey either the plot or the emotional impact of my story.

I tried to do better. I read the how-to books and articles. But the only advice I could find was to write a brief summary of what happened in each chapter and then cut it down, and that was precisely the technique that wasn’t working.

Then, at the Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference, I took a workshop from Pam McCutcheon that completely turned the process around. Her premise—forget that awkward chapter by chapter stuff—is that your synopsis only needs five major plot points:

A: is the Ordinary World. Who, what and where your character is before the story begins.

B: is the New Direction, which I tend to call the inciting incident. Whatever you call it, it’s the thing that kicks your story into motion. The event that forces your character to take action.

C: is the Change of Plans. This may not be in the precise middle of your story, it may take place closer to the end, or even nearer the beginning, but it’s the place where the plan your characters first came up with falls apart and they have to scramble to come up with something new.

D: is the Black Moment. The time right before the climax when all the odds are stacked against your character and it seems impossible for them to win.

E: is the Resolution and End, where your character pulls it off and triumphs. (Or fails and is doomed, if that’s what you’re writing.)

There are several other points McCutcheon covered, such as how to incorporate your characters’ conflicts and growth, and your theme. She also laid out three useful synopsis formats, the dive, the hook and the map. But it was the five plot point technique that came as a revelation to me. In fact, it was like being hit in the head with a magical cartoon brick—lights flashed, stars and little birds circled my head and then…I could write synopses that worked. They rocked. They sang. Or more precisely, they accurately conveyed the plot, and the dramatic impact of my story.

If you ever have a chance to take Pam McCutcheon’s workshop, I highly recommend it. If you can’t take the workshop, her book, Writing the Fiction Synopsis : a step by step approach, is available at Amazon.com, and possibly other places as well. One caveat about the book—I find her long synopsis worksheet tends to throw you back into the chapter by chapter trap. I prefer to start with the short synopsis, and work out from there. But however you use it, her techniques have proven invaluable for me and other writers of my acquaintance, and I think they’d work for you as well.

Winter 2001