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May 24, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Synopses

Kate Hart
Writers know: Synopsis = massive pain in the a$$. Some of you are wincing just from this post's title.

Why is it so hard?

  • Because you know your story too well. 
  • Because your characters are special snowflakes, with problems too complicated and important to fit in one sentence blurbs. 
  • Because you've carefully built multiple subplots and if you ignore one, its feelings will be hurt. 
  • Because if that character wasn't important, s/he wouldn't be in the story in the first place, for the love of...
Right. I feel your pain. But it's a fact of the writing life: At some point, you're going to have to suck it up and write one. Great, you think, so first I'll just find an example... somewhere. Um... like where?

Turns out, Disney mass markets them to children. 

In just a five-minute sweep, I rounded up
all these print versions of the story--
and we as parents did not purchase a single one.
True story.
The "Cars" obsession had a stronghold on our family for over a year. At every gift-giving holiday, Lightning McQueen-related merchandise made its stealthy way into the house. Toys. Sippy cups. Sleeping bags. Bubble bath. Underwear. Even snacks.

And lots and lots of books.

"Cars" is a two-hour movie with at least sixteen fairly important characters, yet Disney has managed to condense it, and not just once. They've created eighty-seven thousand varieties, from three to thirty pages long, but every version has one identical element: We focus on Lightning McQueen.

The shortest versions are almost literally, "Lightning comes to Radiator Springs. Mater wants to be his friend. At first Lightning is a jerk, but then they become BFF. The end." Slightly longer versions add in Sally, the love interest; a little longer adds Doc, the grumpy but wise old race car; even longer adds Lightning's obsession with the Piston Cup; and God help me, if I have to read the 30 page almost word-for-word version again...

Anyway. My point is, every version gets the most basic plot point across: Lightning learns to be a friend.

In your own one-page synopsis, you want the same thing: Main character changes from A to B.

Longer versions can elaborate on that process, but even the longest synopsis is rarely more than 5-6 pages, so you don't have room to deviate far from the central character arc. If you've lost your main character by the end of your synopsis (she says from personal experience), you've gone astray, either in the synopsis itself... or possibly in the manuscript.

But let's assume it's just a problem in the synopsis. After all, pinpointing that center is hard when you've spent months surrounding it with layers of metaphor, foreshadowing and other fanciness. What do you do?

Since those of you without four-year-old boys may not have watched "Cars" every day for a year straight, let's use a familiar story: Snow White. It's a fairy tale with a dozen important characters, significant backstory, and set in a historical fantasy world complete with magic. Can we sum all that up in seven different ways?

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
who's the sparkliest of them all?"

  1. A girl from an abusive family finds solace in the love of a stranger.
  2. Seven small diamond miners take in a mysterious girl.
  3. A cautionary tale about the dangers of tainted foods.
  4. A woman's mirror drives her to murder.
  5. A hunter must decide between his duty to the government and his morals.
  6. A girl with an annoyingly high-pitched voice gallivants through the woods and is punished with imprisonment in a glass coffin.
  7. A necrophiliac prince finds true love.

    Please click to expand this. I love it.
    All of those are true in a way. As the author, you have to choose which one suits your purposes. Is your story, as a whole, on the angsty side? Go with version #1. Dystopians are popular? Go with #5. Pro-local farms? #3 is your pick.

    I'm not saying you should misrepresent your story. If you've written a romance, you don't want to query it under the wrong genre (because while "dystopian" might catch an agent's attention, discovering you lied is a one-way ticket to rejection, or at least makes them think you don't know what you're doing).

    But your approach helps to give even the shortest synopsis a taste of your story's setting and voice. So if you want to query your psychological thriller, go with #4-- but if your manuscript is quirky, you might choose #6.

    Still frustrated? Try writing ridiculous versions of your synopsis, pretending your story is a mystery, a comedy, a zombie story (hi #7!), or even a fairy tale. You may happily discover new themes in your work, and you may unhappily discover some problems. But somewhere in there, you'll find the core of your story.


    Need more help? Check out the synopses of your favorite movies on IMDB, or look up your favorite books on Amazon, Goodreads and the like. You can also find great tips on writing a synopsis in Kaitlin's post at YA Highway

    ETA: Darn it! A day late and a dollar short, but here's another funny "What Disney Princesses Teach Your Daughter" graphic.


    1. great post! Ha ha,since my book is a fairy-tale retelling of Snow White, you just wrote my synopsis for me!

    2. OH MY GOD that picture of Edward as Snow White creeps me out.
      I might have nightmares.

      But this post rocks :)

    3. Oh my God. I babysit my cousin's two year old and we watch cars EVERY Friday. He has all of said Lightning McQueen merchandise. And a stuffed Mater.

    4. Great post! I was actually thinking of writing something on sypnopses since I pretty much stink at them. I'll definitely use you as a source. :)

    5. i'm really bad about outlining before i write, but i often outline as i write. i'll jot down a one sentance description of each scene as i'm writing. it makes it easier to track where the stories headed and when i'm done i have a starting point for a synopses already.

    6. hahah! this was a great post...FYI: I loved #4 and #7! lol

    7. Great post! I'm bookmarking this one ;)

    8. fabulous post! and OMG THAT PICTURE OF RPATTZ where do you FIND these things?!

      *bleaches eyes*

    9. Between the post itself and the title, this is an neverending stream of epic. Thanks for sharing/posting/spreading the awesome!

    10. Kate, this is brilliant. Seriously funny and seriously helpful. Awesome post!

    11. This is a great post. I totally related to the Lightening McQueen part. I've got a 3 year old. :)

    12. ZOMG as soon as I stop laughing I will tell you haow awesome this post is, but that might be a while...

    13. I have a 3 year old cousin who is obsessed with Cars. He knows almost every line, which is really really scary.

      Great post! I am bookmarking this to look over when I write a synopsis years from now, after I finish my first book.

      And I agree with Kaitlin. That picture of Edward as Snow White and Bella as the apple is really really creepy. Lol!

    14. Rpatz as Snow White is so the next Cloverfield.

      Awesome post -- I've been trying to write the query letter bit, and slowly whittling the synopsis down! This will be so helpful!

    15. This is a really great post. You're absolutely right. A story can be considered from many angles, all of them right.

      Love the princesses pic! Hilarious. And sadly true.

    16. Wow, thanks for all the post love! Glad to hear it might be helpful. :)

      Re. the creepy Edward picture, I wasn't even looking for Twilight-related stuff-- that came up when I Googled Snow White! O_o

    17. Don't feel weird...I love it! Perhaps we should all write queries including lines from our favorite movie! I wonder what movie I would do!?!

    18. This was an excellent post. I loved the seven synopses, and not just how you showed 7 different ways to define that story, but how each one could be useful depending on your focus.

    19. You know what I find helpful? Writing a query/synopsis before you right the book. At that stage, you don't love the characters yet, and you only know the bare bones anyway.

      Later when the book is all shiny, you can revise the query to add voice and important details, but it should already be a decent representation of the main plot and main characters.

      I love the princesses pic. I wrote an article once about Prince Charming and how he ranges from a necrophiliac to a stalker. And yet, we idealise him. I think that's why girls swoon for Edward too. He's Prince Charming.

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