On Writing a Synopsis Before the First Draft

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Like most writers, I despise synopsis-writing. It’s easily my least favorite part of the writing process, and one I tend to put off until I absolutely have to. Because trying to condense 60-100,000 words into a page? It’s tough. It’s ridiculously tough.

But I’ve been trying this new thing lately.

I’ve often heard writers talk about writing the synopsis before they write a single word of the manuscript. While this is something that never sounded particularly appealing to me (after all, synopsis writing = the tenth circle of hell Dante forgot to mention), I figured I’d try it out for a potential future WIP.

While I’m not currently done with this brainstorming/synopsis experiment, and it is absolutely more than a page (which I think is fine, considering this is the time to expand on ideas to turn into a book, not condense them), I’ve noticed a couple interesting things along the way.

Firstly, it’s been working surprisingly well as far as idea-generation goes. I’m a very linear writer—I tend to build up scenes and come up with ideas by working off of what I already know has happened—so writing a condensed, summary version of what I think will happen chronologically has definitely helped me come up with how to get from point A to point B, which is something I tend to struggle with while plotting.

Secondly, it is way easier to notice potential plot problems or places where I could tweak and expand when working on this summarized version. It’s actually kind of exciting, because I can look at the synopsis I have going and add a couple sentences a few pages back and voila! NEW PLOT THREAD. This synopsis brainstorming thing makes it so much easier to see macro issues and weave new plot threads in before I start writing, which will hopefully make revising easier in the future. I think.

All in all, the pre-draft synopsis has been a really fun experiment, and one that I’ll probably continue and do again in the future. And maybe, just maybe, having this early synopsis will make future synopsis writing a teensie bit less painful. Hey, I can dream, right?

Have you ever tried writing the synopsis before the first draft? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Writer @Ava_Jae blogs about the pre-draft synopsis and how it can help with plotting. #writingtip (Click to tweet)  
Have you ever written a synopsis before the first draft? Here's why you may want to consider it. (Click to tweet)


Jim Heskett said...

I'll have to try this method. What's worked for me in the past is to write a one paragraph summary of each chapter, then throw those together into one doc. Then I format it as a short story, usually about 20 pages. THen I cut that to 10 pages, then 5, then 3, then 2. Working backwards this way feels a lot less painful... I just cut what it least essential in each version.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting! When I'm doing a normal synopsis (where I'm condensing a book rather than brainstorming) I use Susan Dennard's 1-Page Synopsis method. It's worked wonders for me in the past. :)

Ashley Poston said...

This is how I wrote TSOU's sequel, actually (heh), and it worked WORLDS better than trying to figure things out mid-draft. But, I have to say, I still have a lot of fun writing by the seat of my pants, too. Going by a synopsis sort of takes the thrill of the adventure out of the story, imo. At least part-ways, and then there's the problem with deviating from the summary when you have a REALLY SWELL IDEA and wondering how the heck you're going to loop the story back on-track with the synopsis. Sigh.

Darth Lolita said...

I wish I could o-e I might maybe write a good couple of start up sentences, but since I rarely ever know how things are going to go, I'd just stop less than two sentences in and give up.

I've yet to write a synopsis, even though my book is done. (Wellllll in the drafting process. The basic meat and bones is there, though). It's weird because I can certainly see my current story in the events, and I could map them out easily without adding superfluous stuff. What I struggle with is actually making that summary sound interesting >.>

RoweMatthew said...

Two words: snowflake method. You end up writing a one page synopsis as you are growing your novel from the one sentence idea you started with. I love it. All the planning becomes part of the novel writing process and seems meaningful. It's far easier to work up from a one page synopsis than it is to cram a written book onto one page

Ava Jae said...

The way I look at my outlines/pre-plans, is they're less of a strict rule of what must happen and more like guidelines. There are so many times when I'm in the middle of writing a scene that I planned to go one way and it turns out ENTIRELY DIFFERENT from what I'd originally planned, and when that happens, I just go with it. Though sometimes, like you mentioned, you can get a really big plot-changing idea midway through and you just kind of have to work it in.

But pantsing! I haven't pantsed in a long time, but I definitely get that argument. I tend to combat the losing the thrill aspect by letting my characters do whatever they want once I start writing. I have a direction from the outline/synopsis/whatever and let the story go from there. :)

Ava Jae said...

Post-draft synopses are ridiculously hard. Pretty sure they're actually a torture device in some countries. (No, not really, but they could be).

But yes, I'd imagine pre-draft synopses writing would be a little tougher for pantsers.

Ava Jae said...

Snowflake method! You know, I haven't tried it (at least, not the exact step-by-step), but I totally see the logic behind it and I suppose what I did here is semi-similar. But I totally agree—working up is WAY easier than condensing down.

Jen Donohue said...

I haven't tried to do a synopsis prior to writing the book. I've tried it as an organizational sort of approach, with a novel I've spent too long screwing around with and too little time getting to the actual story, and I found it helpful in that regard. It's definitely a skill I should work on, synopsis writing.

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