So, this morning, I’m working on a synopsis of the plot of my current piece of work. I’m entering a competition in a few weeks (one of those ‘find an agent’ type competitions), so I’m obviously pretty anxious to do this correctly and give myself the best shot I can. The competition requires each entrant to summarise their plot in 300 words or less. This is a challenge, and no mistake. I’m sure most people who have ever written creatively felt the same way when it came to this part of the process, and it does help – a little – to know I’m not the only one facing this test.
I’m not 100% finished with the manuscript, but that’s not a problem, as I know exactly where I want the story to go. So far, I’ve written about 83,000 words, and – for the most part – those words have been effortless and a pleasure. I’m loving this story, and finding words has never been a problem; that is, except now, when I need to find fewer of them. It’s really difficult to cut a story down to 300 words, particularly when it’s a story you’ve been thinking about for years, and which you’ve always seen in terms of ‘the bigger picture’ – by which I mean all the back-end detail that only an author knows and loves. Not only do you, as a writer, know the plot, but you know the characters, their back-stories, their favourite foods and what their childhood dreams used to be, and it’s practically impossible to condense all the life in your words down to a sentence or two.
But this is precisely why you’re asked to do it, of course.
It doesn’t just apply to creative work. When writing my PhD dissertation, I had to write an Abstract to go with it, for which I had the generous allowance of 500 words. That was hard. As interesting (I hope) as the plot of this work-in-progress novel is, at least it is a single story, based around a set of characters, in a world that I created – it’s not an argument, trying to link together twenty or more different stories, made by people at whose mindset I could only guess, as was my PhD. Stories can always be boiled down to their essential elements – the hero, the quest, the ‘problem’, the journey, the resolution, the antagonist, and so on – but trying to write a clear summation of the stories of multiple texts, as well as showing the central points of my argument, was hard to do in under 500 words. I did it, though. It made me understand the necessity of the synopsis, too – I couldn’t possibly expect my examiners to wade through 120,000 words of carefully argued prose before they had any idea what on earth I was talking about. The Abstract was, in a way, a courtesy to them – a guide to the inner workings of my argument, and a taster for what was to come. It also made my argument clear to me. One of the things you’re constantly being asked when you’re undertaking any type of written project is the dreaded question ‘what is it about?’ Being able to explain what it’s about, in a sentence or two, is very useful. Not only does it mean you can answer the question in ten seconds as opposed to ten minutes, but it also keeps you focused on the core elements of the work you’re doing, which can only help you to bring it to fruition.
Understanding the importance of a plot summary is only half the battle, though. I’m wondering, this morning, should I leave the end of the story out – in other words, should my plot synopsis end with a cliffhanger question? I don’t know if I need to go into subplots and minor characters. I’m not sure how much explanation of the ‘tech’ of my society is needed. I’m going to have to take a leap of faith on this one, and just do my best, and hopefully I’ll hit the mark. The worst part of all, the waiting game, is yet to come! Wish me luck!