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The difficulty in writing synopses

19 Jan

As everyone who both TEFL teaches and writes knows, it’s not just in the CAE or CPE classroom that the craft of summaries take place. I call writing such things a craft because the text type of summaries in those two exams is sometimes as difficult to mark as it is to execute. But the most fiendishly difficult type of summary, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the Cambridge Exams. It is a synopsis of your book when you are trying to hawk it around literary agents and publishers or enter competitions, especially when there’s a word limit involved.  I would rather drive a car in Poland than write a synopsis. They are extremely difficult, so the only advice I would ever give myself would be the same advice I give to nervous students before their exams: relax. Easier said than done.   

Why? You either have a long piece of writing or you’re planning on a long piece of writing, between say 60,000 and 120,000 words, and you have to somehow blast it down to a synopsial length, say, 1,000 words max. In those 1,000 words you have to carry the essence of the story, motivation of characters, undercurrents, subplots, how the characters are changed by the story, etc. etc. etc. It’s difficult enough to distil a novel-length story down to the 1,000 words, let alone all the other things. It can end up as a very dry, (i.e. boring) piece of writing because you’ve cut it to the bone, but you so want to keep the flow which is your style and give it the bit of flesh that makes it interesting.

Nobody wants to go out with a skeleton (unless they’re necrophiliac), and we all know how attractive even the smallest of curves as well as flesh can be. So, in essence, a synopsis must leave a whole lot out even of the story, while not becoming just a brief outline of the plot.  Even if I am showing, say, character change,  by actions in the story rather than telling the reader straight ‘this character has changed because….’ I still find it very difficult to avoid the skeleton which, unfortunately,  does not come to life in a macabre dance but lies there buried under mounds of frustration.

The positive side of synopses is that they help you redefine your novel, even if your novel started out as a journey with no clear ending (as mine always do); they help you end up with something that ‘works’ better, even if you are breaking outside the guidelines of writing novels (at least you know you are breaking them).  So, I still haven’t taken up driving in Poland, but I have written a few synopses in my time.