Taming the Wild Synopsis
TAMING THE WILD SYNOPSIS
For many new writers in the process of preparing to submit a first novel to agents or editors, the very idea of writing a synopsis sends them into a panic. They have been told so many times how much depends on it, how difficult it is to do right, that the challenges it presents are nearly insuperable, it is no wonder they become stressed and confused. But, in fact, the mechanics of writing a good synopsis are not mysterious at all.
These days, most agents ask for a one page synopsis (single-spaced). This may seem unreasonable when you have a particularly long and complicated book. Yes, modern SFF readers want a story set in a vivid, well-realized world and they want great characters in a compelling plot. It seems unfair. How can you hope to squeeze all of that into a page or less? The answer is not that you need more words, it’s that you need to choose exactly the right ones. Consider it a test of your skill as a writer. Can you be succinct when you have to be? Do you know your story well enough to boil it down to a few paragraphs — or will your book, like your synopsis, ramble about with no clear sense of direction?
Here are a few pointers:
Many books on writing tell you to write the synopsis in the present tense. No, I have never been told why this is so. Here is my best guess: because most synopses are written that way, I believe it helps the agent or editor slip into another mind-set: one programmed to evaluate the synopsis as a synopsis, and not as they will evaluate your manuscript or sample chapters.
You have to pack as much eloquence and meaning as you can into as few words as possible, so don’t be afraid to use colorful, dramatic phrasing — so long as you don’t lapse into purple prose. Be specific wherever possible rather than relying on sweeping generalizations, but know that there are some things you will have to describe briefly or not at all. Remember that the right details can suggest a character’s entire history. For instance, suppose that your character was an abused child and grew up to be exactly like his father. Stated baldly that way it falls a little flat, yet you can’t list every instance of violence that occurs in the story: when he was five his father knocked out one of his teeth, when he was ten his father whipped him one night for arriving late for dinner, when he was fifteen, etc. However, you could say something like this: “Whenever his father came home drunk, David would go to bed with bruises or a bloody nose. As an adult, he found himself repeating the same pattern with his own children.”
If you can, include a few short bits of dialogue — not a whole speech or conversation — a small amount of description. For instance, instead of simply saying, “she refuses his offer,” you put in an abbreviated version of what she actually does say.* This brings the character to life and conveys some of the flavor of the novel. But be sure that all such dialogue or description is meaningful. Dialogue should be that of a central character at some pivotal moment, and be expressed in a way that reveals something about the person speaking. The best description makes the setting tangible with a word here and a few words there, perhaps a sentence or two at the beginning. Yes, you can do it. The key is to give specific, well-chosen details that are so evocative, anyone reading them will fill in the rest.
The form of the synopsis should go something like this:
Set the scene (briefly). Don’t begin with philosophical ramblings about the nature of evil, don’t declare your theme or your reasons for writing the story, and don’t start with a question or a series of questions.
Introduce, in a few sentences, your main characters and the most important conflicts and difficulties they face at or near the beginning of the story. But don’t say “the most important conflicts and difficulties … etc.” Leave the circumstances to speak for themselves. In fact, never instruct the person reading the synopsis on the significance of anything.
Describe the major movements of the main plot line, including any important plot twists, setbacks, or sudden reverses of fortune (so that the agent or editor can see that the plot is not one that simply plods along from incident to incident). Tell your story in a linear fashion, even if that is not how the plot unfolds in the book. Make sure it is clear how nuch hinges on your protagonist’s success or failure. What is at stake, and for whom? What does the protagonist, specifically, have to lose? If the synopsis is an effective one, it should be clear why readers would be invested in the outcome.
Leave out (or, if you must, briefly summarize) everything else, including all the subplots. Be selective in what you choose to tell. Sometimes the answer is not to explain more, but to simplify and/or be more exact. If you try to tell too much, you run the risk of becoming tangled up in increasingly convoluted explanations. Concentrate on what matters. Remember that the synopsis is not the book, and you don’t need to explain things that don’t impact the plot. The most important thing that you need to convey is that your book has engaging characters caught up in a compelling story line.
DO give a clear idea of how the book ends, and don’t annoy the agent or editor with sly hints. This doesn’t mean that you have to give away all your secrets — if your main character finds a surprising entry in an old diary, making it possible for him to clear the family name and marry the girl he loves, you don’t have to reveal that this interesting document was hidden behind the wainscotting in the library, though the diary itself better make an appearance — but agents and editors alike will want to see that you are able to bring your story to a logical conclusion, or at least (if it’s the first book in a saga spanning several volumes) to a logical stopping place.
If it’s part of a multi-volume series, you may want to include a very brief summary of the other books, but on a separate page.
And that’s it. Learning how to write a great synopsis is one of the most important skills you can learn as a writer, but there is nothing arcane or mysterious about it. It may take a little practice and a lot of thought to get it right, but compared to writing the work of staggering genius that is your book, it’s not difficult at all.
Do remember, however, that no matter how excellent your synopsis, if agents don’t feel confident they can sell the book to a publisher, the synopsis will not convince them otherwise.
*But this part depends on where you are and what the agent asks for. In the UK, agents often read the synopsis after the sample chapters, in which case they will already know something about the characters and the style of the novel, and you should concentrate on telling the story. On my side of the Atlantic, many agents will read the synopsis first, or ask for the synopsis before they ask for sample chapters, or ask for the synopsis and five pages. Under these circumstances, bringing the agent into the story with the characters through dialogue and description becomes more important.
It is a good idea to have more than one version of the synopsis written in advance, so that you are ready with the right synopsis when you need it.
TERESA EDGERTON is a freelance developmental editor, providing critiques and evaluations of unpublished manuscripts, and helping new writers to expand and develop their writing skills. If you would like to learn more about the services she provides, you may send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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