Synopsis writing workshop, suitable for writers’ groups

Part 1.           

Select a well-known novel that everyone has either read or seen the film (Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, or similar). Split the group into 4 subgroups and give each a set of questions from one of the first 4 steps below. Each group will work together to answer their 4 questions. Put the answers to each question on a separate card or paper.

Step 1            Plot Basics

  1. What is the inciting incident?
  2. What events obstruct the story goal?
  3. What is the decisive event at the climax of the story?
  4. Describe the resolution?

Step 2            Main Character’s Arc

  1. Describe the main character at the start of the story.
  2. Describe how the MC is thrust into a situation where they are pressured to change.
  3. Does the MC change, adopt a new approach, take uncharacteristic action or become more entrenched in attitude and approach?
  4. At the end of the novel, is the mc better off because of their choices? Does the reader feel the MC has done the right thing?

Step 3            Consider the Impact Character’s Role (The IC, or characters, provide the pressure for change)

  1. How does the IC express a different approach or attitude to the MC?
  2. How does the IC pressure of influence the MC to either abandon his old ways or learn a new way of doing things?
  3. At the climax, does the IC or the MC change and how is this illustrated?
  4. Is the IC better or worse off at the end of the novel?

Step 4            The Major Relationship

  1. What is the relationship at the beginning of the story?
  2. How does the relationship develop or is tested during the story?
  3. What happens at the climax (what is the decisive change)?
  4. What is the relationship at the end of the story?

Part 2

Share and discuss the answers from part 1. Together, work on Step 5.

Step 5: Include Thematic Considerations

Consider any issues, themes, messages and or morals of the story. If they are a crucial part of the novel, write them on separate pieces of paper.

Part 3

Collect all the number one questions and answers together (beginning of the story), number twos and so on. Finally put the step 5 notes into the appropriate piles depending on where they’re illustrated in the story.

Each group to compose a paragraph or paragraphs of the synopsis, which covers the portion of the story they’ve been given.

Important points:

  •  “All synopses are told in omniscient present tense.  There are no exceptions to this rule.” Sheila Kelly
  • Always check the publisher’s guidelines for format, length and content, as what is required in a synopsis varies a great deal.
  • Do not staple or fasten pages together. Include a header/footer on every page with page number, author’s last name and title.
  • Do not use excess adverbs and adjectives.
  • “Present ideas in as short a form as possible. Example:  “She was raised by nuns until she came of age to inherit her family fortune” can be converted into “convent-schooled heiress.” Sheila Kelly
  • Study TV guide & movie listings – this sounds funny, but it’s an excellent way to learn how to condense.  Hollywood can reduce a two-hour movie into a single ten-word sentence and still make it sound exciting. Sheila Kelly
  • Go on the internet and critically analyse sample synopses
  • “The biggest mistake most people make when they try to write a synopsis for the first time is to create a bare bones plot summary, along the lines of “First this happens, then this happens, then this happens…” Synopses written this way tend to be so dry and boring even the author would have trouble understanding why anyone would want to read the full novel.” Glen C Strathy

Information, for this workshop, was taken from Writing the Novel Synopsis by Sheila Kelly and How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel by Glen C. Strathy and From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake.

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Breaking the Rules

Last week, I spent time researching and putting together a writers’ workshop designed to help authors write the dreaded synopsis. It’s a crucial tool in getting published but often neglected on courses and in writers’ groups. There are plenty of rules to follow, if you want it to be effective.

Coincidentally, I finished reading A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale yesterday. I can’t imagine what his synopsis for this book would look like, as it breaks all the rules of story structure. Each chapter explores a different character at different times over a span of 60+ years, leaping backwards and forwards from the inciting event. Seven characters are looked at in depth with others important to the story included under their umbrellas.

It put me in mind of a book I read a few years ago called Olive Kitteridge. It was a novel but also a collection of short stories, each about a different character. The reader grew to understand the central character, Olive, and her story through the lives and observations of these others.

Writers are told to avoid having too many important characters and that you need a beginning, middle and end. Despite breaking these rules both books worked. The authors were so skilled; their characters came alive in my imagination. For all their flaws, I cared about them. Reading both books felt like doing a puzzle. Each chapter revealed another random piece until, gradually, the whole was revealed. Neither has the drive and pace of a thriller or crime novel but they are quietly compulsive.

Novels are what I read most and prefer to write but I’ve also written short stories, poems, plays and articles, submitting some for publication and/or competitions. This, I’m told, is good practice because it’s challenging and improves a writer’s skills. I once entered a short story competition with a piece inspired by my mother-in-law. Although told it wasn’t really a short story in the traditional sense, it won first prize and has since gone on to be included in the soon to be launched Forget-Me-Not memory book to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK.

I think my story worked because it was written from love and personal experience so people could relate to it. Like any art form, you need to understand the rules before you can break them and be skilled enough to pull it off.

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