Opening the blinds

Why writing a synopsis is so important for the writing process

‘You’re good at writing plans’, one of my colleagues said to me last week.

He was right. I am good at writing plans. I do it all the time: whether it’s writing a concept for a new play, a design document for a computer game, or a funding application for a new app, I spend almost the same amount of time thinking of plans as I spend executing them.

Yet for all that, I absolutely hate, hate, writing synopses for new stories, even though they have a lot of common with other forms of plans, outlines and concepts. But a synopsis is…different, somehow. Writing one makes me want to throw my computer out of the window, or in some cases, stop writing altogether. And this week, during one particularly frustrating synopsis writing session (for my novel, to be honest, so it’s quite a big thing), I think I finally found out why. And it’s the same reason why writing them is so important.

They force you to choose.

In a lot of cases, a synopsis will be one of the first tools you’ll use to communicate the ideas you have about your story. But I’ve found its most important function has less to do with other people, and everything with your own writing process. It’s the bridge between the ideas that exist as vague shapes and images in your head, and the manifestation of a story in letters on a page. A synopsis is the first step in materializing the abstract ‘headstory’ into a real ‘living story’ that can connect with readers. Arguably, it’s also the hardest.

I’m a structured kind of writer. I try to define at least the basic shape of my story arcs before I’ve even put one word to paper. That gives me a sense of control, but it’s a false feeling. In your own head, communicating only with yourself, logic works very differently than in the real world. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the details and the nitty-gritty of the story, even though it’s those details the ultimately decide if a story works or not. That first phase of the writing is like working on a sculpture in the shadows, with the blinds closed. When someone opens them, it suddenly cast a bright, harsh, light on the work you’ve done and the work you thought you did. Usually that first sight isn’t very pretty, and things you thought were beautiful might be very misshapen. But in my experience, it’s absolutely crucial to see those things as they are, because only then you can start exerting your will onto then, and really start creating the story you envision for other people, for readers.

Writing a synopsis can feel a like a chore, an ugly necessity. But even it doesn’t feel like it when you’re writing it, it’s an ally, not some kind of foe that stands between you and your creation. Even though it’s a bastard, the synopsis is here to help you.