Katherine Ladny Mitchell
Highlighting the Essentials: Writing the Synopsis
This past week, I've been working on a surprisingly tricky writing assignment: the synopsis. You might think that after typing hundreds of manuscript pages, cranking out a dinky 2-5 pager would be easy. But synopses are like icebergs; there's more to them than meets the eye, so you must tread carefully. Writing a slip-shod synopsis can disqualify even the most gleaming manuscript from further consideration. Here the “faithfulness with little” principle comes into play. If you don't punctuate your summary correctly, why assume you'd do differently for your novel?
The synopsis serves as a shorthand guide to the major plot and character developments of an entire book. It's a condensed overview: 300 pages distilled into less than half a dozen. It's how you'd share your story with someone in a waiting room. It should be written double-spaced in present tense, ideally with the same flair and tone used for the book, but minus all the non-essentials. This is where things can get complicated.
How do you decide what's essential and what's not?
Some writing guides recommend including only 5-7 characters if they contribute directly to your plot. Others advise starting with one – two sentence summaries of each chapter to pare your story down to size. You can then hone it down until you reach your page limit (which varies between agents and editors). Figuring out the essentials may feel a little like hacking at a mountain of ice until you can fit what remains into a manageable glass of water or whatever alcoholic beverage to which this endeavor drives you.
(That was in jest.)
Actually, the process isn't so bad if you use the following question as a primary filter: can the story progress if I don't include this particular point? If so, it's not essential. If not, it is.
While chiseling out my most recent synopsis, I realized that focusing on the essentials can be a helpful practice not only in writing but also in life. How often have I let the tyranny of the urgent monopolize my time and energy? How often have I ignored relationships in the name of my to-do list or chosen to “get ahead” in some area (usually housework) rather than enjoying the present with the people around me?
Jesus said the most essential thing in life was to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. With that as the primary filter, losing ten pounds, meeting a financial goal, or feeling overwhelmed by a pile of laundry seems a little less essential. Not without importance, mind you – I can't just not clean my house and visit with friends all the time. All mundane tasks can reflect the miraculous if you go about them the right way. (Am I sounding a little like Mary Poppins here?)
But if the non-essentials overrun their bounds, squeezing out time and emotional space I should be devoting to the true essentials (i.e. relationships with God and people), then I probably have some self-editing to do.
Thanks for reading, and ta ta for now.