The benefits of the Emotional Synopsis

By Donna A. Leahey

I am not a plotter. Nor an outliner. You will find nary a character sketch created before I begin writing. No painstakingly detailed setting sketches either. The closest thing I generally come to an outline is a series of post-it notes stuck to the sides of my monitor.

Half the writers who read that just collapsed in horror. The other half said, “What’s this crap about post-its on the monitor? Let your muse fly FREE!”

Some would say this makes my first draft a very detailed outline. I won’t argue. One of my quotes people will be flinging about after I’m a famous writer is this: Sometimes you have to write it to know what it’s about.

See. It's one of my sayings. There's even an image for it.

See. It’s one of my sayings. There’s even an image for it.

This also means that rewrites can be painful. You begin to realize that most of that lush backstory needs to be surgically removed, that your timeline needs major reconstruction, and some of your favorite characters have no reason to even exist in your story.

This is where the emotional synopsis comes in.

I was discussing a particularly troubling timeline issue, when my friend and fellow writer Jerry Quinn advised me to write out each of my main characters’ emotional arcs, as he discussed in this blog post: Synopsise early, synopsise often.

I decided to start with my three main characters: Sisters Cydney, Carra, and Caitlin.

First, it’s a lot harder than you might think. I’ve been working on this for a couple weeks, and I’ve just finished two of the three. I saved the most difficult sister for last, so it could easily take me a month to get all three finished, and that’s without even starting on any of the cast of supporting characters who have their own arcs.

Nonetheless, even with just 2/3 of the main characters completed, I’m already seeing the story as a whole differently. I’m seeing flaws that need to be addressed, plot and pacing problems that need fixing, characterizations that need to be strengthened.

Creating the Emotional Synopses of my characters has been one of the most beneficial things I’ve done for this story in the embarrassing number of years I’ve been working on it.

If you’re struggling to get a plot point nailed down, a characterization figured out, or even if you’re just not sure what your character would do next, try working through the story from the point of view of each of your characters.

Go see Jerry’s post about it!

Below are the first few scenes of my novel viewed through the eyes of each of my main characters (still not polished, but I think you’ll get the idea):

Cydney, the oldest sister:

Cydney Nation is a PhD student battling burn out and stress. She’s been experiencing mild visual hallucinations in the form of colors moving in the corner of her vision and ended up seeing a neurologist who said nothing was wrong. She and her boyfriend Jonny recently broke up because he cheated on her and she’s battling her own emotions trying to stay away from him. She is looking forward to her baby sister Caitlin coming to live with her and their middle sister Carra as all three will be attending college together.

Caitlin convinces them to attend a party, even though Cydney doesn’t want to go. While there, she encounters Jonny who tries to convince her to get back together with him. She becomes dizzy and is convinced he’s drugged her drink. Carra’a boyfriend Ben runs over when Jonny grabs her.

As Ben and Jonny face off, the colors she’s seen in the past grow stronger and rush towards her. As they wash over her, her dizziness and confusion vanish, but it’s too late to stop Jonny and Ben from fighting.

Carra, the middle sister

Carra is a senior in college, striving to graduate with honors a semester early. She is in love with her boyfriend Ben, and in addition to her school work, she’s a successful athlete on the track and field team. Recently, she and Cydney have both been seeing things out of the corner of their eyes, rainbow colors, flowing like water. She lives with her older sister Cydney and their younger sister Caitlin is moving in that day.

When Caitlin is invited to a party unofficially sponsored by Beta Nu, Carra initially refuses to go, but Caitlin can only go if she brings her sisters, so Carra finally agrees even though she despises Beta Nu.

At the party, the sisters split up initially. Carra is enjoying her time hand in hand with Ben.

Before too long, however, Ben points out that Cydney with her ex, Jonny. Cydney is clearly intoxicated and Jonny is grabbing at her. Ben and Carra run over to help.

Carra helps her sister while Ben confronts Jonny. The colors she’s been seeing surround Cydney and appear to move into her.

Carra is doubtful when Cydney abruptly sobers up, but then the confrontation between Ben and Jonny becomes suddenly physical, as Ben throws Jonny to the ground.

With Caitlin pouting and Cydney claiming she was never intoxicated, Ben drives the sisters home. Carra reluctantly sends him away when they get home.

Caitlin, the youngest sister

Caitlin Nation is excited about going to college. She has plans, she has goals and is more focused and determined than her girly behavior lets on. She looks forward to moving in with her tomboy older sisters, Cydney and Carra, even though she wants to step out of their shadows and be her own person. Caitlin has recently been having recurring dreams of a pretty Irish girl in an old fashioned dress who speaks cryptically of three sisters and The Beast.

She is flung into college life quickly when Ashley, the president of the sorority Caitlin wants to join, invites her to a party as long as she can persuade Cydney and Carra to go.

Initially, they are reluctant, and Caitlin is frustrated with how much they both dislike Beta Nu. However, eventually they agree, to Caitlin’s delight.

At the party, Caitlin talks with Ashley, but her hopes of making a good first impression are dashed when Carra’s boyfriend Ben gets into a fight with Cydney’s ex, Jonny.


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