Thing is, I blogged on Tuesday about synopses and foolishly promised to come back today to add something about how to do a synopsis for a non-linear or unconventional structure. Looking at it more closely, I never said I was going to say anything at all piercing, did I? Meh.
This whole question was precipitated by the following email from a blog-reader some time ago:
"I've been working on a couple of synopses recently, and it occurred to me that synopses are usually fairly linear in structure. But what if your novel has an unconventional narrative structure? For example: a story interspersed with flashbacks or dream sequences? A crime novel broken up by chapters which cut away to a murder taking place somewhere else? A narrative that shifts POV from one character to another? And so on - not necessarily the next James Joyce, but not a linear 3rd person narrative!These sensible and lucid questions reveal two wrong beliefs: that a synopsis must relate the story in the same way it is told in your book, and that there is one perfect format within which a synopsis should fit.
"With a story written in such a manner, what do you think is the best way form a synopsis around it, making the agent aware of its particular style? A brief comment at the start of the synopsis? Attempting (somehow) to replicate the structure within the synopsis? Or something else?"
No. There is no one prescribed format. There are, literally, more ideal formats for synopses than there are books. The only wrong ones are those that are too long, too detailed or too anything except clear. Simply tell the story in any way that fulfils the purpose of a synopsis - to show the agent or publisher that you've got your story sorted and what it is like.
Let me unpick the specific questions. Obviously, I don't know the details of the stories suggested, but I will try to offer an example of how you might do it.
"For example: a story interspersed with flashbacks or dream sequences?" I would probably tell the main story in one paragraph and then say, "The story is interspersed with flashbacks in which Jake is taken back to a former life which he gradually begins to remember." And then one sentence which indicates the importance of this, perhaps explaining why the flashbacks occur.
"A crime novel broken up by chapters which cut away to a murder taking place somewhere else?" Again, I would probably tell the main story in one para, and then say, "At intervals, the story cuts away to a brutal murder of a young woman on a Greek island one sultry summer a generation earlier." And then I'd give a sentence to show why this is crucial / interesting.
"A narrative that shifts POV from one character to another?" It may not be necessary to say this at all - it depends how crucial it is to the understanding of your story's beauteousness. But, if I felt it was crucial - not to the story, where it obviously is crucial, but to the synopsis, where it might not be - I'd mention it, probably after telling the main story / MC / main theme. For example, I might say, "The story is told mainly from Ella's point of viewpoint, but at intervals it moves to Sebastian's." And possibly, not not necessarily, a sentence to show why or how.
"With a story written in such a manner, what do you think is the best way form a synopsis around it, making the agent aware of its particular style? A brief comment at the start of the synopsis? Attempting (somehow) to replicate the structure within the synopsis? Or something else?" Whatever suits your story best, in the shortest and simplest way possible.
Important point: if any agent or publisher tells you his own preferred format for a synopsis, this is helpful but not to be taken as a universal ideal. It will doubtless conflict with someone else's ideal. The simple reason for this is that there is, as I say, no one correct way to do it. We're all trying to help you but the more detailed our efforts, the worse it becomes.
Extra points for clarity (I hope!):
- Just because your story has a complex structure, does not mean that its complexity must be conveyed in the synopsis. Authors tend to get very hung up on their beautiful structure - I tend to feel that, unless you've been really original, you should leave that to the story itself and just make your synopsis as simple as possible.
- With a non-linear structure, copying the structure of the book in the synopsis is probably not a good idea, as it is likely to be too long and complicated. Better to say, for example, "Woven between this is the story of..." or "The story moves between ... and ... " or "Meanwhile, as Sukey is dealing with her recalcitrant weight problem, Jeff is snow-boarding with llamas."
- Agents and publishers have read many different structures. They do not need everything spelled out. Just capture the story, calmly and coherently.
- Don't get clever in your synopsis - this is not a time to show off. Yes, hone the words perfectly and make every word do its job precisely, but the synopsis is a functional exercise, not a display.
- Imagine you are pitching your book to someone and that you have more time than the usual 10 seconds of their attention span. You have them for a whole minute - what would you tell them if you had one minute?
I feel I've let you down a bit with this post if you were expecting more detail. So, I have a suggestion: let's have a Synopsis Surgery. If any of you would like me to post your draft or problem synopsis on this blog, email it to me at email@example.com and I will post the first two up here for anyone to comment on. No specific rules: just send me what you'd like posted, as an email attachment, remembering to include an explanation of the problem you are having. But I can't take any responsibility for what happens thereafter - obviously, I can't control what people will say (though I will remove comments that abuse anyone other than me) or what people might do with your synopsis. It's up to you...