Friday, January 20, 2006


Karen Harbaugh's Index Card Method
of Writing Synopses
Copyright Karen Harbaugh, November 28, 2000

Anyone like writing synopses?

You do? Getouttahere! Nobody likes writing synopses except Deb Stover, but I will forgive her because she is one of the people who prevented me from doing a Very Stupid Thing in my writing career.

However, if you aren't Deb Stover and still like writing synopses, you probably don't need this method, you probably clean the top of you refrigerator every week, and I bet you have a subscription to Martha Stewart magazine, too.

But for those poor souls like myself who find writing synopses a chore, I am willing to share a method that has worked for me. I developed it back in 1995 after thinking deeply about story structure, and seeing how my critique group member and fantastic Regency author Teresa DesJardien (and I would link to her web page, but she doesn't have one, the naughty creature) plotted and arranged her scenes--by using index cards. She'll jot down scenes on these cards in the way she thinks they should go, and if she gets stuck or loses her way, she'll look at these cards and re-arrange them if need be.

I have to say that Teresa is one of the most conscientious authors regarding technique that I know. She once wrote a whole book in a single point of view, just so that she could master that technique. In fact, she'll take a particular technique she wants to learn, and apply it throughout a book she is writing, just to learn it. Her discipline and dedication to improving her art struck me like a two-by-four upside the head, I kid you not, and I saw the light (the kind of sparkly light you get when you are whacked over the head--never mind. I've gone too far with that simile). I've tried to do the same ever since about practicing technique.

So a large part of the credit goes to her, plus various writing workshop leaders from whom I've learned, but alas cannot remember their names.

Anyway, this is how you do it:

Get seven 3x5 or larger lined index cards (depending on how large you write longhand). What you write on the cards must be concise and brief, and you are not allowed to write on more than one side of the card when going through steps 1 through 7 below.

The first card has the character description of the heroine.

The second card has the character description of the hero.

The third card describes the opening scene, the set-up for the book.

The fourth one describes the most important scene before the midpoint of the book.

The fifth describes the crisis/climax/transition of the book--the midpoint.

The sixth describes the most important scene between the midpoint and the ending--usually the "dark moment."

The seventh describes the ending scene.

After you've done that, look over the cards. Have you omitted any crucial point? If so, add it to the back of the card. Do this for each of the cards if you need to.

Now, put them in order. This is where you actually start writing your synopsis.

Take the 3rd card (the one with the opening scene) and flesh it out a little, TELLING the scene instead of showing it. When you first mention the characters, describe them briefly (using the 1st and 2nd cards).

After you are done, get the fourth card (the most important scene before midpoint). Write only one paragraph (at most, two) to connect those scenes.

IMPORTANT NOTE: These "connecting" paragraphs should tell what the motivations and emotions are that make the scene in the next card necessary.

Take out the fifth card (midpoint) and do the same--one or two paragraphs to connect the scenes.

Do the rest of the cards in the same way until you finish with the 7th card.

About Secondary Characters: Do not describe secondary characters or mention them unless they are crucial to the plot. For instance, if you have a heroine who is escaping a stalker and that stalker is her cousin, mention him, since he is the villain and is crucial to the plot. However, if she has a cousin with whom she stays for a month while she looks for an apartment, and this cousin doesn't do anything but allow her to stay with her or makes some commentary on her life, don't bother to describe this cousin. It's enough to say that she's staying at her cousin's house while she's looking for her own apartment.

Using this method, I found I was able to keep my synopsis short, generally under 10 pages (although 15 is not unreasonable). I have even shaved them down to 5 pages on occasion. If you're writing a longer book, however, it's fine to write longer synopses than that--you'll want to if you're writing a long book. I've heard the general rule is 1 page of synopsis to 20-25 pages of book.

Of course, the question is, will this synopsis method sell your book?

No, of course not. Only a danged fine story and good writing can do that. However, it might help. I had the very nice experience of having a complete stranger look at my name badge at a conference one time, gasp, and say, "YOU'RE Karen Harbaugh?" When I said yes (hoping that her apparent joy was because my books were her favorites), she immediately enveloped me in an enthusiastic hug and told me that she had never been able to get an editor to ask for her manuscript, but after using this method, an editor immediately requested her previously rejected proposal. Of course, it had to have taken a marvelous story to attract an editor's eye, but hey, it's gratifying to think something I wrote might have helped someone follow her bliss.


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