Load Bearing Character


“Send me a synopsis- three pages. I’ll be better able to advise you once I have an idea of the story.”

I’d called in a favor to a former professor of mine to try to get some advice about the query letter for my novel, and after four weeks of rescheduling I’d finally managed to get him on the phone.

“Three page synopsis. End of the week- can you do that?”

“Yup.” I said. “You got it.”

I knew I already had a synopsis written: I’d managed to distill my 900 page manuscript into a ten-page synopsis several weeks earlier, and had further streamlined it down to six pages by eliminating the subplots. Now I was going to need to cut it in half yet again.

Challenge accepted.

I knew in a broad way that the story followed three conflict arcs: Man Feuds with Bandmate, Man Loses Grandmother, Man Hits Rock Bottom all under the larger thematic arc of Man Reconciles With Estranged Father To Find A Place In The Family. So really, all I had to do was eliminate anything that didn’t directly support one of those arcs.

It quickly became clear which characters were load-bearing characters: characters that were key to the structure of the story as a whole. There was the protagonist, of course, who was also the narrator. That one was easy. And there were obvious adversaries who deserved to be mentioned by name as I outlined the conflict. Proper names became a key indicator: the story has a cast of thousands (ok not literally, but there are a LOT) and it didn’t make sense to drop a bunch of names unless there was good reason for the reader to know it. The names that remained fell into two categories: antagonists who’s conflict with the narrator moved the plot forward, and characters who caused three protagonist to be in conflict with himself to move the theme forward: mentors, love interests, children, etc. It was interesting to note what characters were glossed over: some of them were quite major participants in the story, but moved in parallel to the protagonist: informing and facilitating the action but not causing change. It was an eye opening way to see the structure of my story emerge from its complicated mechanics.

I guess it’s true that you never stop learning about your own work.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on September 5, 2019.

4 Responses to “Load Bearing Character”

  1. Learned something new for when I get back to writing, thank you

  2. Unless your book is the next Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter and involves the creation of new languages and/or worlds with laws that need explaining, does a synopsis need more than a page? Is this the sort of synopsis you’d find on the back of a book cover?…or something more detailed to cover all possible angles that might result in “No. I won’t publish that.” (?) And, if the latter, what does that entail? What fills 3-10 pages? In 3-10 pages, I’d be writing my average short story…which would amount to many of my stories that don’t quite cut it in novel sizes.

    • It’s not a novel that involves a lot of world building, but it does have a fairly intricate network of characters and relationships. A summary would certainly be a single page, but a synopsis usually includes all the key plot turns (including, giving away the ending) so that an editor or agent can see the scope and structure of the whole story without having to read every page.

      • Aha. So then it would require a more lengthy synopsis…though, for me, that sounds more like a detailed breakdown than a synopsis. I tend to be a wordy guy…and even three pages sounds like a long synopsis. I remember when three pages was a term-paper challenge (when I wanted to write more or less). I also remember a 20-page economics paper that nearly killed me.

        I get giving away the ending…because a synopsis for a publisher’s preview should cover the start and finish of the project. But, you have to give away all surprises, too? Isn’t that the point of saying, “Read my ‘manuscript’ and get back to me.” (?) If an editor needs to fix or ask you to fix something, he/she is not going to see the real problems in a synopsis. It’s not the finished product. You could write a clean synopsis and have some flaws in the real pages.

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