Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Difference Between a Synopsis and a Novel

OK … so I had a synopsis. But I wasn’t just religiously following that. No plan survives initial contact with the enemy.

The synopsis I’d written, the one Justin and I had worked through, the one that Russell Davies Himself had read and approved, was two pages long. It wasn’t meant to contain every single thing the book would. Editors know that. The idea is that when you hand the book in, the editor can look at the synopsis and go ‘yeah, that’s what we commissioned’. Basically it's so, down the line, the marketing people, the cover designer, the sales reps, the press and publicity people … they all know, months before the book actually exists, what they’ll be getting.

Tales grow in the telling.

The thing a lot of non-writers ask is ‘where do you get your ideas?’. It’s the wrong question to ask. Ideas are easy, it’s stringing them together in a coherent way that’s the challenge. What I’ve found is that to string ideas together, the process of writing is more like a set of heuristics … ‘solutions to problems’.

There are a variety of strategies a writer adopts. Now … again, as I’ve said before, very little of this is conscious, particularly when everything’s working. It’s not a matter of sitting and calculating – you don’t catch a ball by calculating a parabola, you do it on instinct. Or, in my case, you fumble and drop the ball because you lack even basic hand-eye co-ordination.

The basic problem to solve is that there’s a set of specific story points you want to make – people who study drama tend to call these ‘beats’. If you want to make the point that a character is cool in a crisis … well, the golden rule is that you don’t just write ‘Steve was great in a crisis’, you have a scene where we all see Steve coping well in a crisis (and, conversely, other people coping badly, by way of contrast). ‘Show not tell’. And the difference between fiction and real life is that everything in fiction is there for a reason, and is making a specific point – the art of it is to make it feel like real life, and the irony is that necessitates hundreds of different contrivances and conventions. So, for example, people in real life don’t speak in any way at all like people speak in the movies – unless the real life people are quoting from movies. The biggest con job of all, the most artificial and convention-bound, is the story that's 'realistic'.

Things change as the writer turns his ideas into an actual book, and that was certainly true of The Eyeless.

One character, Dela, isn’t even mentioned in the proposal and just ended up becoming a major character. This often happens – stories work much better if there are two people in a room, arguing and explaining things. As I said last time, I was splicing scenes together, keeping things pacey and efficient. I needed characters to hit three ‘beats’ – to do three things – and it turned out that Dela could do all three, and suddenly was there in my book, a rounded character.

Another character, Alsa, started out as one thing and ended up as exactly the same character but playing a completely different, much more interesting and involved role in the story. Again, I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but the book altered quite substantially once I understood the active role she’d take in the story. Gar, on the other hand, a character we first meet with Alsa, ended up with far less than I was expecting. I thought the two of them would be a double act, and get pretty much equal time.

The thing is … synopses are always a bit of a fudge. Legend has it that the outline for the Paul McGann movie ends with something like ‘and then the Doctor gets back to the TARDIS and stops the Master in his own inimitable style’. That’s the whole last act basically down as ‘TBC’. And the last act is a bit of a mess, probably not coincidentally. If nothing else, if you’ve not pinned it down, every random passing executive can pitch in and add a suggestion like ‘wouldn’t it be great if they went into, like, a time orbit?’ and he’ll be too senior for anyone to express their natural, healthy reaction to the idea, which is basically to re-enact that bit with Heath Ledger and the pencil.

There will always be things you’ve not fully worked out in your synopsis. You’ll have things like ‘and then the Doctor gets through the impenetrable forcefield and meets the Guardian who tells him the way to the Old City’ or something, without knowing how he does that literally, by definition, impossible thing or what the hell a Guardian is or looks like. In that case, it’s basically deferring your imagination. You’ll explain later.

There are two simple problems there … coming up with a trick for the Doctor to perform to get past the forcefield while trying to maintain suspense, and playing fair with your readers – ‘oh look, a button that deactivates the forcefield’ is a bit rubbish, but so’s ‘I’ll plug my sonic screwdriver into the tachyon emitters and send a plasmotic pulse’. Ideally, you want some way that the reader could guess – ‘oh, he uses the crystal he picked up in the forest in the first chapter’ or just make a fight of it. The Doctor gets past five traps a story, there are over a thousand Doctor Who stories, so it’s tricky coming up with a novel way of getting past a trap. As I said a while back, stories are about choices. If your protagonist gets past the trap by making a clever, characteristic, choice, it’s always going to be more satisfying than if he does it by luck or coincidence.

Likewise, the Doctor’s met lots of monsters – a number of them called ‘Guardian’, for that matter, like Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System (except on Sunday, when he’s merely an Observer, joke © Jim Smith), the Guardian of the Doomsday Weapon, not forgetting the Black, White, er … hang on, I think I can do this from memory, Gold, Azure, Red, Crystal and Beige Guardians. Was there a Pink Guardian? Somehow, you feel there ought to be in the Doctor Who universe. Pink could play him or her.

These are basically just three pipe problems. You spend a day going ‘the Guardian’s a big lizard … nah … she’s a little girl … nah … he’s Stephen Fry in a UFO style purple tinfoil wig … yeah … er … nah’ until you hit on an idea that just works. It is, in all honesty, a ridiculous way to make a living, and to justify it, authors work themselves up until things like this seem like the Schleswig-Holstein Question or trying to prove that N=NP.

These aren’t structural problems. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the Guardian looks like from a story point of view. The story beat is only that the Doctor needs to meet someone who can tell him about the Old City. If the book was running over the word count, or was dragging a bit, you could ditch the whole forcefield/Guardian bit and have the Doctor find a signpost marked ‘to the Old City’.

If you’re writing a book and you change your mind, you only have to edit a few sentences. Or, and this is the great thing with novels, you can defer everything to your readers: ‘she was the most beautiful woman imaginable’. OK readers … get imagining. On TV, you have to be more concrete – you have to cast that woman, so it becomes a question of the most beautiful woman by the standards of the casting director who’s available and agrees the fee. Not really the same. But even on TV, the writer can palm a load of the heavy lifting off onto the director or designers. You type ‘it’s a futuristic control room’ and get on with things, leaving some other guy to design and build the damn thing.

Ten days or so into the writing of The Eyeless, I hit a structural problem …


Dan Tessier said...

This is all very illuminating.

Good to see you didn't forget the Beige Guardian - he's my favourite.

Aleatoric Consonance said...

I'm enjoying this blog tremendously! A lot of very interesting points about the craft of storytelling. It'll be sad when it ends.

I, for one, am going to buy "The Eyeless". Definitely!

Any chance of seeing the actual synopsis sometime in the future? It would make an interesting comparison.

Lance Parkin said...

Hmmmm ... yes, it had struck me that posting the synopsis would be useful and illustrative and all that. At the moment, there's the problem that it gives away a lot of the book.

Not sure what the appropriate interval would be, especially given that places like North America don't get the books for a while.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the blog. By the way, the problem that you refer to is P=NP, rather than N=NP.

Lance Parkin said...

Ack ... no wonder I couldn't solve it!

(I'm reminded of the Eddie Izzard line about scientists kicking themselves - 'I had F equals MC squared. I was *so close*').

Anonymous said...


I'd like to make a request for a future edition of this involving ideas - specifically names! Names for characters, names for places and settings and the like. Where and how do writers come up with the various names used in their stories?

For most earthly stories, I would guess this is not too difficult. However, for sci-fi and fantansy stories that use exotic settings and exotic races and species, I can see this getting pretty tricky!

Jack Beven

Lance Parkin said...

A request!

I'll do that, yes.