Perfecting the synopsis: From tantalizing teasers to plot points and spoilers

Synopsis imageAt some point in your writing career, someone will ask you for a synopsis of your work. When this happens, you want to be ready!

To be quite honest, I was not. I had no idea what was being asked of me the first time I read the words, “Please send me the first fifty pages and a synopsis.” Not being ready made me look ill prepared. Ill prepared is never good when you are asking someone to have faith in your ability to produce and perform.

Let’s focus on the basics.

What is a synopsis?

A synopsis is a document that shows an agent or publisher what your novel is about from beginning to end. It must include enough information to show character motivation and structure.

How long should it be?

Although I have heard different thoughts on how long it should be, most information I have read from agents and publishers says 500-1000 words, or one to two single-spaced pages. I am going with that, as this is the group of people who will ultimately be reading it.

What are editors looking for in a synopsis?

Different editors are looking for different things. However, most who I have talked to or read say something about wanting to see an original idea or premise, an interesting protagonist, and subject matter that is fresh and compelling. They are also looking to assess your writing ability and that you know your story’s purpose and where it fits in the genre.

What should be left out?

Remember, you have one to two pages to highlight hundreds of pages of text. There is no room to focus much on secondary characters. Focus only on characters who come up repeatedly and who move the story forward in a meaningful way. If the ending will still make sense without a character, he is not key and does not belong here.

You also do not have room to focus on minor subplots. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if the ending still makes sense without the character, subplot, or plot point. If it does, leave it out.

Author Jane Friedman has a lot of great advice for what to avoid. My favorite from her is to avoid backstory. I struggled with this (and still do). A good question to ask is, “Is this about what happens in the book, or is this about why it happens?” If it is the later, you do not need to include it in your synopsis.

How do I keep my synopsis from sounding too mechanical?

First, accept that your synopsis will be more mechanical than other types of writing. It has a job to do that is a different job than your query letter or your manuscript. Here, it is not about showing with great dialogue and lyrical descriptions. It is about telling, not showing.

I read a Tweet by Kaitlyn Johnson that has stuck with me about the jobs of these three pieces of writing. She said, “Think of your submission as a series: Query, synopsis, pages – all linked by voice, all sharing a few key details, and all formatted in their own unique way.”

This does not mean your synopsis should be without depth or texture. There should be feeling, and their should be emotion that accompanies the actions, just not unnecessary jargon or tangents. Think about the emotional twist and turns of your main character.

What tips can you give for adding depth and texture?

Different people will recommend different things, but here are a few suggestions that I have seen pop up over and over again in my research: Use third person and active voice; High-light your unique point-of-view; Avoid wordiness; Use clear and concise language; Understand the relationship between your main character and impact characters and the emotional arc this creates.

What should be in my synopsis paragraphs?

Paragraph one should introduce your protagonist. It should also let the agent or publisher know where he is (setting) and what problem he is facing in relation to his impact characters. It will show how the relationship between the protagonist and impact character(s) stand(s) at the beginning of the story.

The next paragraphs should define the stakes. What is at risk? What is the protagonist going to do about it? What are the major plot points? Show how your main character is thrust into a situation where she is pressured to change. This is known as the crisis: the decisive event or turning point that sets the story on a course for achieving the goal (or not).

These paragraphs should also define other key characters. Think about how these relationships stand at the beginning of the story, how the relationships are tested or develop during the course of the story, and how their relationships are different at the end of the story. Does the impact character(s) pressure or influence the main character to either abandon her old ways or learn new ones?

The final paragraph is where we find the resolution or climax. It should wrap things up. Make sure resolutions to major conflicts are found in this paragraph. Yes. It is also the job of the last paragraph of the synopsis to give away the ending.

Should I use headers or labels in my synopsis?

The short answer is no. There is no need to section out the synopsis in this way.

What other sites can I use for further research?

I totally recommend Glen C. Strathy’s “How to write a synopsis of your novel.” Not only does this page talk about the biggest mistakes writers make when creating a synopsis, but it also provides step-by-step process that addresses both the plot and the emotional sides of your story.

C. J. Redwine tells us how to write a synopsis without going crazy over at Romance University. The article looks at the synopsis as a skill to be learned. I know that I learned a lot reading it.

Published by Tammy Bird, Author

I am a new author who struggles every day to balance my life as an educator and my life as a writer. I know how hard it is to stay positive, to learn, and to give back to those who give but, like you, I want it and so I move forward. Baby steps. I hope you will join me on this amazing journey. We are stronger together!

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