Premise, plot, synopsis – why not just write?
This has been on my mind a lot recently: I’ve been lecturing on writing fiction and on another module I teach at the University of Salford I’ve recently marked synopses of novels the students are working on. Naturally, in a twelve week module, when they’re studying two other modules as well, they’re probably not going to complete a whole novel. So writing a synopsis at this stage may seem a little false. In this submission, though, I’m looking for two things: evidence of a story that will work and a business-like, industry standard document that crystallizes that story neatly. Interestingly I ask for a 2500 word extract of the novel and the reworked synopsis in a subsequent assignment. This replicates what we might submit to publishers.
The spirit of the synopsis
In my own practice I don’t write the synopsis until I’m ready to submit but I’ve often got a bullet-pointed outline in my head. My eventual synopsis is a crystallization not just of a plot outline but of a whole process. Perhaps a default good synopsis will include:
A concrete premise (e.g. Jack stumbles across a pirate ship and manages to stop the pirates hurting his friends.)
Some character description
An outline of a story arc
A more abstract summary of the premise e.g. Jack finds his courage and saves his friends.
In order to have that in mind as I’ve write, I’ve come up with an initial idea, possibly putting it into words and taping them to the top of my computer screen to stop myself going off at a tangent. I’ve got to know my characters – so even if I haven’t answered a six-page questionnaire about them. They have lived with me for a while and have come out rounded and believable, with a back-story and a future. In producing a text I’m using a balance of various writerly techniques using both art and craft.
Character or plot and is there a difference?
Always story comes from a tension amongst the characters that people it and between them and their environment. But there are writers who claim to plot in detail, perhaps spreading story-boarding cards all over the floor and those who say they just put the characters together and step back and watch what happens. If these are actually two extremes I’d put myself almost exactly in the middle. I think, though, in fact we all understand the same about story. This is just a matter of different writers preferring different tools.
I come back again, as I often do, to Stephen King who claims to write entirely from character yet produces stories with superbly crafted plots.