Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Practicing Prestidigitation on Pretend Pachyderms

In the comments section, Neil Shurley asked:

"So. About this 1000 word synopsis. How close do you end up sticking to it? Walker Percy, I believe, made a comment once (seriously paraphrasing here) about writing being no fun if you already know in advance where it's going. But most folks, I think, benefit from having an ending in mind. But, anyway, all that being said, I'm curious about how much you end up drifting from your initial synopsis over the course of writing the novel. I suspect it differs from project to project, but I also wonder if you're contractually bound to follow the synopsis you've delivered."

This is a good question, and touches on a number of things.

Contractually, I have to deliver a book that’s like my synopsis. In practice, as Tolkien put it, ‘the tale grew in the telling’. There’s a major character in The Eyeless who’s not in the synopsis at all, another who does all the same things for completely different reasons. I dropped one big thing about the monsters: they were going to have a strict caste system, with strictly defined roles. I had it all worked out and had drawn pictures of the various castes and everything. I dropped it not because it’s an SF cliché and invariably rubbish, but because it just didn’t really go anywhere when I came to write it down. They spent far more time explaining the caste system than doing anything with it. One bit that I thought would take up chapters and chapters ended up being half a chapter long. When the title changed, I decided I needed to introduce the Eyeless themselves a little earlier. The ending hits all the same basic beats and points, but is quite different from the original plan. Justin Richards – Series Consultant/my editor is a writer, an extremely prolific one, and knows that these things happen. So ‘like’ doesn’t have to mean ‘identical’. There’s no doubt at all that the synopsis and the final book are ‘like’ each other. And, in the end, no editor worth his salt will ever say ‘that works at every level and doesn’t clash with our other plans … but isn’t like the synopsis, so change it’.

Now … the rules are different when you're writing for a series with lots of different authors, particularly one based on a TV series that the books are running alongside. If you’re an established author writing your own standalone book, with your own characters and so on, your publisher probably won’t require you to write a synopsis.

But The Eyeless is one of three Doctor Who books coming out on the same day, and that’s the day after a television episode. It’s the thirtysomethingth book of the range. The tenth Doctor books aren’t a ‘series’ like the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor books, which told an ongoing story – they’re all self-contained adventures … but they are all part of a range, and lots of people read them all.

The synopsis is a quick way to make sure that the stories are all sufficiently different. In a series that’s been running as long as Doctor Who, it’s very easy to come up with an historical character or setting or type of monster that’s been in a story before (it's harder not to, at times). All series and genres have formulae and only tell certain types of stories – Doctor Who is a great deal more flexible than most (Paul Cornell once said ‘the format is there’s no format’), but I don’t think I’m being massively controversial when I say that there are some old stalwarts – the alien invasion; the base under siege; the planet that seems nice but is secretly ruled by aliens; the everyday object that turns deadly as part of the invasion plans; a shipwrecked alien having to kill to survive. In any given year, the Doctor will face evil insects, evil robots and aliens disguised as people. There will be stories set in the past, present and future. It’s the rules.

Individual writers, though, won’t know what the other writers are up to. Not at first. Now, obviously part of my job is to come up with something … well, let’s be polite and call it ‘original’. It’s not original in the true sense of the word – it’s more like coming up with something that you assume no one else will be doing at the moment. If the editor has a synopsis he can say things like ‘don’t end it with a big shoot out, a lot of books recently have done that’ or something like that.

Once the book is commissioned, the synopsis is very useful to the various marketing and sales people. The cover has to be designed while the book is still being written, so the artist has to work from the synopsis (I’ll be talking about my cover soon).

There may be people – other writers, even – who read that and think that novelists shouldn’t be worried about commercial stuff. Surely, they say, novelists are artists and should be free range and organic and dancing around meadows, and so what I’ve just described makes me the writing equivalent of a battery hen. No wonder these books end up in supermarkets.

Well, they’re wrong for any number of reasons, but let’s just pick one: once it’s been approved, the synopsis actually frees me from all the ‘commercial stuff’. I can get on with my writing, confident that all the marketing and publicity and editorial people know what they’ll be getting and are happy with it. That’s all sorted out before I’ve written a word my readers will read.

But …

I also think there are at least two obvious advantages to having a synopsis whatever you’re writing. I think new and aspiring writers should at least try writing a synopsis before they set out trying to write a novel.

Firstly, it's much, much easier to change a synopsis than a novel. This is obviously true physically - if you write and rewrite and edit 10,000 words, then throw it away and write another 10,000 words ... that all takes time – weeks, at least. But I think the main advantage is an emotional one: you can get very fond of your writing. There’s a bit of description you really love, or a joke, or a character … but that section of the book isn’t working. Instead of biting the bullet and throwing it away and starting again, you get the urge to tinker and juggle things around and rework. It becomes all too easy to throw good money after bad.

It's very hard to get emotionally attached to a synopsis. The ending doesn't work? Come up with a different one. In the end, you’re changing a couple of sentences, not a couple of chapters. And the prose is usually pretty functional.

Secondly ... it's easier to see the problems. Novels are big and complex and take months to write. You make thousands of little decisions, all the time, and it's very easy to end up drifting a little off course. Sometimes you'll end up in a more interesting place - often, though, you'll just be getting lost.

But even before you set off, if you have the plot laid out in front of you, you can see where the problems are likely to be. There are always weak moments. Bits where you write ‘she decides to trust the Doctor’ when there’s no real reason for her to do that other than you need them to work together now, or ‘the Doctor suddenly reveals that’, where what you’re really saying is that the Doctor doesn’t earn the knowledge, he’s kind of known it all along.

Top tip: when you’re plotting something, if the word ‘suddenly’ appears, you’re probably doing something wrong. I’ll explain why in a later post.

The trick isn’t always to eliminate plot holes, it’s often to understand where they are and hide them. Authors use the same basic trick as stage magicians – distraction. Look at my right hand. My right hand is doing something really interesting with a handkerchief, ooh ooh, look at my right hand. While you’re busy looking at that, my left hand is slipping the playing card into your pocket. Telling a story is exactly the same sort of thing – controlling and limiting the information the audience is receiving. Getting you to ask the wrong question, withholding the one piece of information you really, really need to see what’s really happening.

There’s a massive plot hole in the greatest movie of all time, Star Wars. A stupid one. One that defies all logic. One that you’ve probably never noticed (although the writer of the radio version did and tried to plug it). Our heroes escape from the Death Star, Princess Leia says that the escape was too easy, that they’re clearly being tracked and then says … let’s got to the Rebel base. The one that the Imperials have spent the whole movie looking for and have no other way of locating. They lead the Death Star to Yavin. And know that’s exactly what they’re doing. Which is pretty dumb.

Now, George Lucas is a genius. Yes he is. If you don’t agree, leave – we don’t serve your kind in here. He distracts the audience with the space battle, the mourning of Ben, Han teasing Luke about Leia. That bit of the movie works brilliantly as a nice, short gap between the action of the Death Star escape and the big space battle at the end. Even though it’s people just sitting around, it moves so fast, there’s so much else going on, that you’ve seen that movie loads of times and never noticed the ‘plot hole’. Although I’d wager a lot of you will be telling your mates about it now.

It is, in the end, basically the same trick that Arnie uses in Last Action Hero when he’s surrounded by an army of mobsters – he points behind them and shouts ‘look – an elephant’, then runs away while everyone’s looking for it. Writers point at a lot of imaginary elephants.

The synopsis allows an author to see the story laid out without the distractions, allows him to see if there’s stuff that doesn’t work. There’s then the choice of either fixing it, or burying it. In the case of Star Wars, getting the Death Star to Yavin for the final act was the important thing, and made for a much better story than any alternative way of doing things.

I saw a lot of synopses for the New Adventures when I was researching the Virgin version of A History of the Universe. Some writers, like Andrew Cartmel, sent in vast chunky things – I think the one for Warchild was about thirty pages, complete with dialogue samples and so on. He clearly preferred to have it all mapped out before he started. Gareth Roberts and Ben Aaronovitch preferred two or three pages, get the strong basic idea down, then build on it.

Writers all write differently. They all have their own tricks and ways of getting the job done. Kelly Hale recently said in her blog that she never reads when she writes … I do the complete opposite, almost pathologically. Some authors swear blind that they just start writing and don’t know where the characters will take them. That sounds reckless and crazy to me, like jumping off a cliff and then trying to work out what to do next.

In the end, the reader never sees the synopsis. In the end - while it's often preferable - it doesn't matter if the creators of some story all got along, or whether the writer had fun doing it, what matters is the end result.


That Neil Guy said...

Thanks. Great answer, and a great post in general. I have to say it's a pretty convincing argument to synopsify yourself before tackling a big project. Dang. Maybe that's why my longer-scoped projects always seem to derail...

Lewis said...

Thanks a lot, this whole blog has inspired me to start writing. I had started a novel with a girl from school but i never really had much enthusiasm with it. I'm going to get to work on a synopsis for it now and then set about writing. Have you ever tried writing a novel with someone else and/or do you think it's a good idea or a distraction?

Lance Parkin said...

I co-wrote Beige Planet Mars with Mark Clapham.

I've co-written a lot of non-fiction, and I think that's really sensible. If you're doing a guide to a TV show, having another perspective stops it from turning into monomania. Usually, anyway.

The novel ... I've recently re-read BPM for reasons that ... well, are implausible. It's got a lot of really fun jokes, and Mark was pastiching my style so expertly that the bits that read like me are actually him (and there are great big chunks I just can't tell who wrote what). I'm very fond of that book.

The way we did it was to write about half each, then hand it over so the other one got to polish it. That worked, I think.

As for whether it's a distraction ... well, it depends on the girl, I suppose.

The BBC journalist John Cole once said the most important thing about writing wasn't getting the words on a page it was keeping your bottom on the seat. It's very easy to plan and dawdle and talk about writing.

Having someone there who is writing, so you have to write, and who is eager to see what you've written, so you have to write something for the next time you see her ... that would almost certainly be incredibly useful.

As I say in that post, with writing you judge whether the method works by the end result and nothing else.

Kate Orman said...

If the editor has a synopsis he can say things like ‘don’t end it with a big shoot out, a lot of books recently have done that’ or something like that.

True story: "Sorry, but we already have a book lined up that's about snow that can think." What are the odds? :-)

Dan Tessier said...

Another very informative post Mr P.

I have gone and made a synopsis! It's here:

Now, it's longer than the original 1000-word instruction, but still feels too short. I think - hope - the story will expand as I write it. It seems too simple, perhaps, but the NSAs aren't hugley complex Machievellian things, like some of the NAs and EDAs, so perhaps that's OK.

By the by, I wouldn't call George Lucas a genius - but I do like kittens. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

James said...

Lance, baby.. that's not a 'plot hole' in STAR WARS caused by scripting and outlines, it's a result of the shape of the Death Star assault being fundamentally changed in the editing room, after the film was completely shot.

As scripted the Death Star isn't attacking Yavin, the rebels fly to the Death Star's location in their X-Wings and it take down while it is still where it was when the Falcon left it. (Cos it's the end of THE DAMBUSTERS, and indeed RETURN OF THE JEDI).

In the script it's a calculated risk on Leia's part, knowing that the fleet can get to the Death Star long before the Death Star gets to Yavin. Which it does. This bit had to be cut, because they changed the nature of the final battle in the editing suite.

After seeing the rought cut Lucas decided that, onscreen, the finale made the rebels solely the aggressors and that the end of movie seemed wrong as a result. We needed to see the rebels under threat of extinction or we wound up feeling sorry for the stationary, under attack people on the Death Star.

So the plot thread about Yavin being on the verge of being vapourised was added after the
movie was finished shooting - and it was done using entirely reverse angles, little scraps of film left over and bits of voiceover.

The moment when Tarkin says 'You may fire when ready', for example,
is a clip from earlier in the film with a voice clip from immediately
prior to the destruction of Alderaan pasted over it. Watch these scenes closely, all the mentions of the imminent destruction of Yavin are in voiceover.

As to the reason why no one has ever noticed *this*, well, that is, of course, because as yo rightly point out, Lucas is a genius.