Hope Tarr's Writing Tips


Embracing the Pain, Pushing Back the Panic: The "Dreaded" Synopsis as Plotting Tool
by Hope Tarr

Like most writers, I’m pretty conversant with my strengths—and weaknesses. Dialogue, characterization, and setting all come easily to me, a natural progression of the flow of words from my being to the printed page.

And then there’s plotting.

Back in 1996 when I sat down to write the Regency-set historical that ultimately would evolve into A Rogue’s Pleasure , I had no idea how to craft my story. Oh, I’d lived with Anthony, my handsome war hero-cum-rake, for some time, as well as Chelsea, the plucky redhead who turns highwayman for the very best of reasons. I had a pretty good idea of the set-up, conflict, and, of course, the Happy Ending. Scenes filled with sexual tension and delicious Regency banter flitted like fireflies inside my head, eventually finding their way out into scenes that, in turn, began to take shape as chapters. When my critique partners finished one chapter and expressed curiosity as to what would happen next, they weren’t alone.

I hadn’t a clue myself.

To be sure, a writer’s "process" is as individual as a fingerprint; no two writers tackle a book in precisely the same fashion. I wrote the first seven chapters of A Rogue’s Pleasure sans synopsis, sans outline. And what a mistake that was! A mistake that cost me a good half a dozen re-writes—cutting and pasting, scrapping old material and replacing it with new—until finally my sagging middle boasted abs of steel, my flabby plot flexed tight as a drum.

Of course, the book sold and then went on to garner some very nice reviews and contest wins, so to quote The Bard, "all’s well that ends well." But what a lot of agony might have been spared, not to mention lost sleep, if I’d just subtracted the time and located the self-discipline to write the darned synopsis in the first place.

A synopsis is to a writer what a life jacket is to sailor. It won’t steer the boat for you, but it will keep you afloat even after, God forbid you have to abandon ship. It might just save you. As to how long it should be, that’s up to you. Some writers prefer sketchy one to five page summary while others make go beyond twenty pages. Unpublished writers, who will be using the synopsis as a selling tool as well, will want to check the guidelines for each publishing house to which they plan to submit their work. I find that my synopses are growing longer and more elaborate for each book I tackle. For My Lord Jack (May ’02), my synopsis was a whopping twenty-three pages!

That is not to say that your synopsis must be twenty three pages nor that, once written, you must stick doggedly to it—I certainly don’t. In most cases, my final manuscript differs markedly from the initial outline. In my Victorian set romance, Tempting (August 27, ‘02), I begin with a short but emotionally intense prologue, which takes place twenty years prior to the story proper with my hero, Simon, as a boy on the verge of manhood. When his well-intentioned plan to provide his older sister with a birthday surprise leads them to stray to the London docks, what should have been an evening of celebration ends in disaster with Simon beaten and his beloved sister raped. How can he ever forgive himself, let alone find the courage to love?

Why did I elect to begin my "romance" novel with such a dark scene from my hero’s past, especially when my synopsis didn’t allot more than a sentence or two to the event? As I set aside my synopsis and sank my teeth into the meat of my story it became clear that inviting readers to step on stage with Simon at his most vulnerable was by far the most powerful device for engaging their sympathy. Sympathy for the guilt-ridden boy of twenty years earlier, to be sure but even more so for the emotionally repressed man he has become. This insight into the character’s past, into his psychology, also underpins the plausibility of my plot setup, namely that my successful self-made man might willingly risk everything—his reputation, his name, and even his heart—to save my "nobody" heroine, Christine.

Little did I know when I started out that it would fall to Christine to not only heal the heart of my wounded alpha male hero but also to mend his broken family ties as well. But then as my characters grow in scope and depth, I find them taking my—their—story on twists and turns that I couldn’t possibly have imagined when I first sat down to type page one. That’s the magic, the beauty, and the unequivocal thrill of writing. That said, it’s always easier, not to mention safer, to embark on that impromptu side trip after you’ve plotted the main course.

The synopsis is your template, your master plan, and your safeguard. It is not, repeat, meant to be a short version of the book.

The most common mistake that writers make when drafting a synopsis is to include too much detail. You’re setting out to tell your story, and tell it well, not to provide a blow by blow summary of the book. Think Big Picture. Employ the Five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why to show how your protagonists get from Point A to Point B, but don’t get bogged down in describing every little detour along the way. Unless, for example, the color your heroine’s gown is essential to advancing the plot, save the description for the book.

Likewise, limit the number of characters you introduce to the core cast absolutely essential to telling your story. Few things are more off-putting than a synopsis crammed with minor characters or, worse yet, minor characters whose names we’re expected to remember.

A well-written synopsis clearly presents the protagonists’ major conflicts, both internal and external, as well as the motivations driving their behaviors and choices, both good and bad. And don’t forget to include the emotion. Romance editors and agents especially are likely to be as interested (perhaps more so) in the why underpinning your characters’ actions than they are in those actions per se. What they’re not interested in is being baited by a mysteriously missing ending or a series of loose ends. By the final page of your synopsis all plot conflicts, both internal to the characters and external to the situation and setting, should be resolved.

Finally, remember that the synopsis is your chance, perhaps your Big Chance, to showcase your wonderful writing. Avoid adopting a dry technical style or a voice that’s not yours. Be creative, be bold, but above all, be yourself.

Hope Tarr has wanted to write romance novels since the sixth grade when she discovered a worn copy of Forever Amber—with all the "good parts" underlined and sans checkout card—at the back of her school library. She describes Tempting as My Fair Lady with a generous dollop of Pretty Woman tossed into the mix. To read an excerpt, visit her online at www.hopetarr.com.

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