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Taking a Meat-Axe to the Plot (Pitches, Synopses, and Treatments)

February 8, 2012

I know you don’t like them. It’s OK. Nobody likes them. Not your editor, your agent, your publisher. Everyone knows the synopsis is a washed-out, lifeless version of the story that’s become your baby. It’s OK. Breathe.

Screenwriters amongst you have probably dealt with treatments enough times by now to skip over this, (although, if those still scare you, maybe you should listen in). But novelists. Oh, novelists.

We love words. Sure, some of us excel at brevity, but let’s be honest, a lot of us don’t. We really, really like words. And we really like our epic story of rambling adventure, fantastic settings and memorable characters.

And you hand it over, and they go ‘What is this garbage? Just tell me the story.’

‘That’s the story. It’s all there,’ you say proudly, you naive fool you. ‘Chapter-by-chapter.’

‘No. Just the story.’

Oh. Houston, we have a problem.

It’s a little like the one-sentence-wonder I talked about on Saturday. Getting the basic bones of the plot down onto paper with none of the frills and spices and all those little extras you’ve been saving up.

“Frills?!” I hear you cry. “That’s intense character development! It’s important background knowledge! This isn’t trivial!”

Yeah, I know. But for the purpose of the synopsis (and even more so for the pitch), it’s basically guff. Beautifully written, artistic, plot-relevent, character-revealing guff. Your publisher (or whoever) wants to know: what does the character want, how do they try to get it, how are they thwarted, how is this resolved. If the relevance of the main character’s epic romance with a passing elf maiden, or the backstory of the ongoing seahorse/sea cucumber civil war (no, I am not giving that up) cannot be succinctly described, it does not need to be in your synopsis.

And don’t start that ‘But I have multiple protagonists’ stuff with me. One of them is more relevant to the plot. Really. Honestly. Pick any one you like, but for God’s sake, pick one. (Sorry, your mileage may vary, but I tried this with two main characters, and it Does. Not. Work. I picked one, wrote the synopsis, and saw I’d picked the wrong one. So I chose the other. BAM, all the main issues of my novel solved.)

When what you’ve got left is your work with all the juicy bits taken out, don’t worry. Publishers will want the juicy bits. You just have to prove your understanding of plot progression, and that you can clearly set out Where This Story Is Going. Then they want all those sub-characters, flash backs, romance plots, and whatever else you’ve hidden up your sleeve. They’re not going anywhere.

“But the ‘juicy bits’ are what sells my work! The basic plot isn’t interesting at all. So…”

So, you need a new plot. This is not A Bad Thing. Paring off the extras to see the skeleton this story hangs on can be very helpful. And yes, sometimes you will spot a gaping hole you can stick your arm through and wave to the other side. You will find this so-called ‘plot’ is less bones and more twigs. Hiding it with more fluff will not make the hole go away. I have tried that too. It Really Doesn’t Work. Write a better plot. I promise you, you will end up with a far greater story.

Wait, what’s the difference between these three?

A pitch is your story in a sentence. We covered that on Saturday. When someone at a party goes ‘so what’s your story about?’, this is your concise but interesting answer. In film terms, this is usually called the ‘Elevator Pitch‘ – imaging you have to sell your film script to an executive whilst stood together in the elevator. In can be longer than a sentence; it just can’t be a rambling monologue.

I have never got the hang of these; and I think they are extraordinarily tricky. My usual answer is a drunken ‘um, there’s these aliens and…no, no, wait. OK. So we’re on a space colony. And. Only, it’s not really a colony, more of a…Um.”

And then they ask, “What, is it like Starship Troopers?” To which I always lie that, yes, it is like Starship Troopers.

A synopsis is a summation of the novel/film’s plot, usually in one page (sometimes you can go up to three, it depends). It’s mostly what we’ve been talking about here. If it doesn’t feel like you’ve chopped part of your baby to pieces, then you probably aren’t there yet. Some people use a three-act structure (more so for film), personally I don’t. Just ask those four questions above on getting your character’s goal.

There is also this mysterious thing called a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. I’ve never been asked to write one, but they sound mystical, much more forgiving, and much more fun to write. I imagine they would still help find flaws in your plotting, without throwing too much away. These can be useful for yourself as much as for industry folks, as it cements the idea of a goal for each chapter, instead of arbitrarily splitting the story into parts. It shows the rise and fall of action in micro-scale, and helps pacing in the sometimes drawn-out Act Two (Come on, it’s everyone’s least favourite act, right?).

A treatment is something I don’t entirely get, but I think it’s mostly for screenplays and scripts. Like a synopsis, but longer and more detailed, covering each scene briefly. I only did one of these, and I can’t say I totally enjoyed or understood it. The screenwriters can correct me down in the comments, because they are wise and know these things.

Any woes on the cutting-down process to share? Or do you find the synopsis easy to write and think I should just plot better The First Time Around? Let me know in the comments.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 7:18 pm

    How about this for a synopsis: “Simon, the God of Jam Sandwiches, attempts to buy printer ink which leads to unravelling a secret Mafia deal to supply deadly biological weapons to both sides of the seahorse/sea cucumber war?”

  2. February 8, 2012 7:25 pm

    This is a good related post:

    Treatments vary from writer to writer, company to company, medium to medium. There might be a staple example of THIS IS A TREATMENT but otherwise it depends on preference: a style that best suits the writer and zer story. I’d say anyone writing a treatment will have to read at least ten that have WORKED and sold the script before they can fathom how to approach one.

    • February 8, 2012 9:22 pm

      Thanks for the link!

      And thank you for explaining treatments to me; I had wondered why every one I’ve read has been different, and all the advice on writing them so varied. I think it’s good that you can have some flexibility depending on what suits the story, instead of a set format that may not fit.

      EDIT for typo fail.

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