Synopses and science

Some time ago I missed a deadline for a competition because I could not get my synopsis finished in time. The reason I didn’t have one prepared in advance was simple: I don’t like writing them. I don’t like how the synopsis reduces the story from a big house, rich in detail, to scaffolding. In truth, my synopses always run the risk of descending into the ‘and then this happened’ story telling of my 7-year old self. It was charming then, but not so inspiring now. So I put it off, as one does. My mistake.

typewriter_synopsis

However, whilst I fail at writing synopses, I am reasonably experienced at writing abstracts. In science, the abstract of a paper has much the same purpose as the synopsis, and it is often what determines whether a paper proceeds from the editor’s desk to the review stage. Get it right or get rejected. Sounds familiar? Unlike synopses, I actually like writing abstracts. Like how it is more precise than the meandering manuscript. Years of training have made a good abstract a thing to be achieved rather than avoided.

So, naturally I wondered if I could translate my appreciation for science abstracts to creative writing.

When I write abstracts, I go through the manuscript looking for key points from each section. These are the points needed for the experiment to make sense. Everything that is covered in the conclusions must be introduced in the results. Everything that is in the results, must arise from the methods. Everything that is in the methods must be supported by the introduction. I gather these points that I want to say, whittle them down and distill them into what I need to say in a few sentences. The trick is to determine what goes in and what gets cut. That means that anything that is, for example, in the methods but not needed for the results, gets scrapped, no matter how interesting.

Then I adjust the balance: no more than two sentences for introduction, two to three for methods, three to four for results, and one for discussion. I tighten the language as much as I can. Word limits tend to be strict (250 words is typical for my branch of science), so brevity is crucial.

Images from arguably prettier sciences than mine: Messier 101 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI), Arches National Park, MSRA (NIAID, flickr.com/photos/niaid)

How does this translate to a synopsis?

I suppose it would look something like the following. First, read the story and take the plot points, chapter by chapter, to create a longish summary. From this, extract the major points needed for the story to make sense at every step and remove the points that are not necessary for the plot to work. This would be what is needed for the synopsis. Then, there is the balance to consider. If it follows the breakdown of scientific abstracts, we are looking at:

Introduction: A short background to set up the conflict (~20%)
Methods: How the characters try to fix or escape the conflict (~30%)
Results: The outcome of the attempted fixing/escaping, including escalation and further endeavours towards resolving the issue (~40%)
Discussion: The resolution with final point of character arch (~10%)

Of course, there is some flexibility in this division. It is not one size fits all. But for someone like me, having approximate targets is helpful. So 20-30-40-10 it is.

Then there’s the tightening of the prose, making sure to get the verbs strong, descriptions powerful and short, and the character(s) motivation clear. Cause and consequence, keep it simple but engaging, less ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and more ‘therefores’. Word choice needs to be good, to ensure both brevity and impact. Include (some) emotions and reactions, and exclude themes and analysis. There is a place for these latter aspects, but a short synopsis is not that. The last discussion point should indicate that there is a character arch, but detail is not needed.

This is followed by revising the living daylights out of the thing. I typically revise an abstract three or four times, then give it a few rounds of polish before sending it to collaborators. After feedback, there is another round of revisions, more feedback, then final polish. Last spell check. Done.

Following this strategy works for me in my day job, and I have started using it for synopses. It is not the only way to write a synopsis by any stretch of the imagination, and probably not the best approach either, but it slots in nicely with my training and helps me put in the work needed. If anyone has a better suggestion how to tackle this beast, I’d be keen to hear it.

How do you approach writing a synopsis?

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Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

587px-rabid_dog_text_and_illustration-_wellcome_l0014575

Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

google_werewolves

In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

The Cordyceps

Just listen to the name: the Cordyceps. To me, that falls squarely in Triffid territory. It sounds as unsettling as it is. Those of us who saw Planet Earth (see clip below) could be excused for turning away at the segment where the Cordyceps fungus slowly sprouts from the head of a helpless ant riddled with white threads of fungal mycelium and controlled like a puppet. It’s like something out of the X-files. In fact, it’s like something out of the X-files episode ‘Firewalker’, for those of us old enough to remember hiding behind the sofa during those particular scenes with the throat-bursting fungus..?

The connection between a flesh-invading, mind-controlling fungus and zombie lore is so obvious it is barely worth pointing out. Fictitious variants of Cordyceps have made their mark on popular culture, with games such as The Last of Us and M.R.Carey’s excellent novel ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’. This means that Cordyceps belongs to the category of horrors that deal with predation and contagions/infection, which are incidentally the two features most reliably associated with successful horror films*. And of course there’s the element of death drawn out in stages of increasing terror, from the initial infection of the tissues, to the loss of the mind, down to the literal spike through the head. Now, that’s an existential horror to consider.

The Cordyceps clip is on YouTube in all its gruesome glory. The music lends it that extra creepiness, in case mind-controlling, brain-bursting flesh-eating fungi is not bad enough. Sir David explains better than I ever could:

Here’s the music without the commentary:

 

* Reference: Davis, H. & Javor, A. (2004). Religion, death and horror movies. Some striking evolutionary parallels. Evolution and Cognition, 10, 11–18.