The Dreaded Synopsis

Synopsis. The very word makes some writers shudder. I don’t mind them too much myself. I’ve written 17 of the things now – actually I’m calling it 18 because the synopsis for Ganymede Tilt had to be rewritten from scratch after its revise and resubmit journey. So I think it’s high time I wrote a blog post about what I’ve learned from them.

Let’s start with clarifying what one is. A synopsis is a summary of the story or novel, sent at some stage in the submission and querying process. It’s not the back cover copy or blurb, or a short description such as might be in the query letter/email. It’s a telling of the whole story. Essentially it’s another version of the story, just very short in comparison.

1) Basics

Length will depend on the requirements of the publisher. They can be a bit vague, but some will specify “one page” “two page”. These very short ones are more likely to be specified. Other times you’ll have to use your judgement. But you can always email and ask what they prefer.

Whatever tense or POV your story is written in, you write the synopsis in 3rd person, present tense. “Jon rushes to catch the train.”

When you first use a character’s name put it all in UPPER CASE. But after that just type it normally.

Include the ending of the story. A synopsis needs to be the complete story. Do not miss off the ending to “intrigue” the editor or agent into asking for the full MS. You’ll simply annoy them. Always include the ending. Yes, even if it’s a twist ending. Yes, even if the story is a murder mystery and the ending obviously reveals the killer. ALWAYS INCLUDE THE ENDING.

2) Plan it.

Plan your synopsis so you hit the word count – either the one you’ve been told to use or one you’ve set. Personally for a novel 70 to 90 thousand words long I tend to do a synopsis about 2 to 2.5 thousand words. To plan it, so I don’t end up with something ten thousand words long and have to spend ages cutting it, this is my method:

Look at your MS and divide it into roughly equal sized chunks. It helps a lot here if you have a chapter outline and your chapters are roughly the same length!

Now, working with your goal word count for the synopsis, work out how many words each chunk of story needs to take up. For example, say your story is 80,000 words and you want to write a 2,000 word synopsis. You could divide the story into 8 10k chunks, and that lets you know you have 250 words to describe each of those 10k chunks (gulp.) So if you find you’ve hit 700 words on that chunk and you’re just getting started, you need a rethink.

Start each of these sections of the synopsis on a different page while you’re drafting so you can keep track. Don’t worry about going a bit long while drafting, because you’ll trim it later.

3) Tell, don’t show.

Yes, you read that correctly and that’s the way around I meant to put it. Tell, don’t show. It’s the opposite of the advice you should have been following when writing the book. I think this is why some writers find the synopsis so hard. They’re going against what they’ve tried so hard to learn to do. But it’s the only way to do it. This is no place for being subtle. In your book you might build something up over several chapters to show a character’s motivation. In the synopsis you just tell why they do something. That’s all you have time for in the synopsis.

4) And then, and then, and then…

On the other hand don’t turn it into just a list of plot events. It’s not a mere summary of the plot, it’s a summary of the story. And characters and their motivations are a story element you must get in there. Get in emotions and the character’s arc. Make sure you’re saying why the plot events happen. If it helps, stop thinking of it as a synopsis and just think of it as a shorter version of the story. Stripped to the bare bones, all narrative summary, but the same story. Imagine yourself telling this story to someone else, aloud. Heck, read it aloud when editing if you want, even to someone else. If they keep asking “why does he do that?” you’re missing out getting character motivation in there.

5) Voice

Don’t be scared to get your writer’s voice in there. The synopsis should reflect the tone and style of the story. If you story is a comedy don’t represent it with an unfunny synopsis. Let the voice of the story shine through. Remember that the synopsis is not only the first version of the story some people will see, for some people it’s the only version they will see. A synopsis is not only read by the person reading your query. You don’t want those people to think you book must be awfully dull if it’s as dry as this synopsis. (See this blog post: Why Should I Write a Good Synopsis fot other uses your synopsis might be put to long after your story was accepted.)

6) Sharpen your red pen

Edit it ruthlessly. Not simply to make sure it’s free of errors, but to take out anything that doesn’t need to be in there. I know, you love everything in your story, but you can’t get it all in there. It’s okay. Your synopsis should help to induce them to read the whole thing where they will read all that great stuff. Meanwhile, trim that stuff like bacon fat.

7) Don’t over think it.

In the end, the book sells the book. You won’t sell a bad book on the back of a good synopsis. But good books will still sell even if they had a not so good synopsis. Do as well as you can with it of course – but be reasonable. It’s a ruthlessly edited, 2,000 word version of an 80,000 word novel, written in narrative summary form. Nobody expects it to scintillate like a perfect short story written by Dorothy Parker.

So don’t spend so long working on the synopsis that you’re essentially putting off submitting. Also be wary of writers posting “the synopsis that sold my Wonderful Book #1”. How do they know? Maybe the book sold in spite of the synopsis? On the other hand if an agent or editor posts synopses that made them request the full of that novel, take notice of those. Read them and learn from them.

Now get summarising!

WAGSFurther reading:
Nicola Morgan has a useful ebook about writing synopses that I found very handy. Well worth checking out.

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