Editing with a Chainsaw: The Synopsis Method

One of the most painful but potentially effective methods of cutting dead wood out of your unpublished novel is the Synopsis Method.

I’ve mentioned this editing method in the past, but I don’t think I’ve really spelled out what it means. Basically, you write a chapter-by-chapter synopsis to see whether you’re using your plot efficiently.

The beauty of this method is that some editors and agents ask for a chapter-by-chapter synopsis anyway. Obviously, it can also be used to help you write a shorter 1 to 2 page story synopsis for book proposals.

Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a Chapter Synopsis

It’s not hard. You just list off your chapters and write a few sentences describing what happens in each one.

Include the following:

  • Major plot points, including triumphs, obstacles, roadblocks, red herrings, etc. All three acts of your plot should be represented at some point in your synopsis overall. I also make sure that I’ve followed the 12 Dramatic Steps.
  • Internal/spiritual conflicts
  • Symbolism or important thematic elements.
  • Major characters should be named
  • Minor characters should only be named if they’re important to the plot.
  • Settings, including place, time of day and weather if applicable, if important to the plot.
  • Musical beats, if applicable.
  • Names of places, vehicles, brands, etc., that are important to the plot. If your killer is obsessed with Disney, you might want to point out that “Sherlock Watson notices a large bearded man in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt drinking from a Mickey Mouse mug that matches the tattoo on his right arm. The man leaves when Sherlock notices him. Sherlock follows him.” (In my mind, poor Sherlock is being led into a trap by our killer’s too obvious red herring.)

Do not include:

  • Minor characters that do not affect the plot
  • Peripheral characters
  • Easter eggs, unless they are part of your novel’s symbolic elements. For example, Dreadknights contains several Easter eggs that call back to the Wizard of Oz, including the names of her mother, aunt, cousin, boss, etc., but these are symbolic of my protagonist’s journey.
  • Names of places, vehicles, businesses, etc., that are unimportant to your plot. For example, one of the chapter synopsis for Johnny Came Home reads: “Johnny sends Weasel after supplies. When Weasel returns to the parking lot, Johnny and their car is gone.” There’s no mention of the store, which is a SuperBig Mart, or that the car is a maroon Plymouth Reliant with one mustard yellow fender. It is assumed that they went into a store and that it has a name, but neither of those things are necessary to our description of the plot. Likewise, everyone who has read Johnny knows that distinctive Plymouth Reliant is his; the fact that it is made distinctive in the book does not make its description important to the plot.

If you’re not sure what to include, as a general guideline, your synopsis should read like your an outline of book. It should give a sense of what the reader will experience in the full treatment, but not include too many details. Think of it as the skeleton your novel fleshes out.

Using Your Chapter Synopsis to Trim the Fat

Once you write the synopsis, you will want to examine it for proper flow and superfluous material, including plot points and characters.

Flow is that magical [and oftimes elusive] element that keeps your readers turning the pages at the right pace. Those last four words are really important. If you’re building up an action scene, you do not want your readers bogged down in a patch of dialogue.

Trimming for Flow

If your synopsis for a particular chapter is overly long, you may want to bust it up into smaller chunks. This might mean more chapters, especially if your word count for that chapter is already higher than is usual for your novel, or if it drags down your novel’s pacing. You know how you’re more likely to eat more food in smaller portions than the same amount in one portion? Your reader’s appetite is similar.

If you have a chapter synopsis that reads something like “Johnny and Ed keep talking” and you were trying to build up an action scene, you can be pretty certain your dialogue has gotten away from you. I got rid of three chapters of Johnny Came Home fhis way. The point is to make sure your storyline flows.

Though less obvious, action scenes can also interrupt the flow. In my case, I had two epic super-powered fight scenes that did not advance the plot in any way. They were just there because I got these cool images in my head and they leaked out onto my storyline.

Let’s face it: I write the movie I see in my head. Sometimes I also write the video game tie-in. The problem with the video game tie-in [and the key difference between a video game and a movie, in my opinion] is that the game has mini-bosses, something neither movies nor novels have [generally speaking]. Mini-bosses were conceived of to give gamers more bang for their buck. They are not necessary to the game’s story arc. They’re extra. Superfluous [like that last word and this parenthetical remark].

As a novelist, you want your readers to keep turning pages at the right pace, so you don’t want to muddle the pace or cut off the flow completely. Action or dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot is like a big parenthetical in your book. Or as we say in my neck of the woods, a rabbit trail. Get rid of them.

Trimming Characters

After trimming Johnny Came Home‘s chapters, I committed to a more heartbreaking edit. I eliminated a character entirely, including all of her scenes.

Dr. Michelle Phineas was very interesting. She lived in Point Pleasant, WV during the Mothman scare and the Silver Bridge disaster. She developed a fear of bridges and a distrust of superstition as a result. She worked for Titan, but was selling out to the competition. But I was basically using her and another character’s dialogue/argument as a foil to present some apologetics. The problem was that she represented a bulk load of meanders that distracted from the plot.

I did have to assign some of her dialogue that was relevant to the plot to another character, but in the end I know I made the right decision.

I did the same thing with Luckbane, eliminating all scenes that dealt with the Dreadknights of Outland. I thought their story, as small as it was back then, added nuance to my world, but ultimately they were cut because their story wasn’t necessary to tell Luckbane’s story. I did (infamously) publish their story as a series of cut-scenes.

This inspired me to write a Dreadknights novel that takes place before the events of Luckbane. It also inspired me to further flesh out those cut-scenes into Dreadknights 2, which will be published in the near future.

In Soulbright, my forthcoming sequel to Luckbane, I noticed that a character only really showed up once and only to shake my protagonist’s confidence. I realized that the inclusion of an important character from Luckbane with no other involvement in the plot was actually distracting. I ended up switching out the character and his dialogue with someone who made more sense to the plot.

Don’t Trim the Good Stuff!

That’s not to say that your book should be a Spartan page-turner. One of the things I had to do was to go back and put two scenes back in! You see, character development is important. I mean, why should we care about a character? Why should we invest our time in them? What makes a particular character, major or minor, someone who isn’t interchangeable with any other character?

For example, in Johnny Came Home I initially cut out a scene where a character remembers her life before the fire that took Johnny’s parents. In retrospect, this scene was important because it not only introduced and fleshed out a character important to my protagonist, it showed us the impact Johnny’s disappearance had on those he knew and gave us a better picture of Johnny’s father, someone who continues to influence him. I cut that scene to bring down my word count. It was the wrong scene to cut!

Use discernment when editing your novel. Ask God for wisdom; He promises to give it to you in spades!

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