Ruth E. Walker
A recent session on writing a book synopsis had me take a closer look at what goes into a synopsis and why it’s necessary. Let’s start with the necessary part.
Why start here? Because you need motivation to slog through the process of writing the darn thing right after you’ve spent years reaching the final draft of your beautiful novel. You are now exhausted. Brain dead. Wanting nothing more than getting your novel manuscript out there to eager agents and publishers and–what? You now have to condense 95,000 words into about 700 words?
Are you kidding me?
Right. So let’s start with why you need a synopsis.
Show you know what a novel needs
Agents/editors need to know you’ve written a beginning, middle and end. No one wants to read your manuscript only to discover you’ve simply stopped writing and tacked on “The End”. Your synopsis needs to present the plot and its arc, offer up the main character arc and convey a satisfying ending.
A synopsis doesn’t play coy by finishing with “And if you want to know how it turns out for Freddie Schmudlump and his hilarious gang of bank robbers, read the manuscript.”
Show you are not an amateur
A synopsis is a timeline presentation of the events and main characters of your novel. So not only do you pare down your glorious prose and engaging subplots, you stick to the timeline as presented in the novel. Don’t summarize with “In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Freddie’s piggy banks were stolen by bullies, so he is forced into a spiralling fall into a life of crime.”
A good synopsis outlines the main characters’ wants/goals (Freddie wants to be financially secure) and needs (Freddie needs someone to show him how to earn a living instead of stealing it.)
And remember that reference to “don’t play coy” by holding back the ending? Do not bury the plot twist, aiming for an “ah-ha!” moment. Like it or not, the synopsis of your novel is not the place for fancy footwork. Think of it as a business document and accordingly, written in clear language with the focus on the main points. No digressions. No layers of subplots and sudden reveals.
How to boil down 95,000 words
I’ve been working on my own synopsis for several weeks and stumbled onto a process that is making all the difference: working backwards.
From a post at JerichoWriters in the UK, I learned to start with the basics and build up the synopsis instead of paring down the novel, as follows:
Status Quo — the main character’s world before the inciting incident that triggers the story
Initiating Incident — the crack in the main character’s world that changes everything
Developments — the series of events that lead the story and characters to the crisis
Crisis — the fireworks, the culminating conflict, the big deal we’ve been building toward
Resolution— the last few pages, the whole end, the part in which you don’t “play coy”
This process is a genius approach because it keeps you on track for the necessary elements of a synopsis. JerichoWriters suggest that Developments should offer up no more than 40% of the synopsis, even though that is the bulk of the actual book.
Jane Friedman, former President and CEO of HarperCollins, in a Writer’s Digest post recommends an opening paragraph “identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting.”
She also reminds writers that agents and publishers are looking for strong writing skills. While the synopsis is a business document it still needs energy, so use an active voice. If you need a refresher on active voice, you might find our 10 Quick and Effective Edits useful.
But I’m a really good writer…
Lastly, if this is a clear document with a business-like tone and short, declarative sentences how can you demonstrate that you’re a terrific storyteller? How can give any sense of your ability to engage emotions and craft vivid scenes with a just-the-basics synopsis of 500 to 800 words?
By being clever. Sprinkle in those trigger words that evoke emotion. Drop passive language and use that active voice to your advantage. So if you’ve written “Freddie wants to be financially secure” consider “Freddie longs for financial security.” Taking a flat verb and giving it some oomph and energy makes a big difference.
In this case, we’re also giving Freddie some emotional punch. Interesting characters advance any plot when they have emotions and feelings.
A synopsis is just one tool to entice an agent or publisher to ask for the full manuscript. But it’s an important part of the package that includes a compelling query letter and at least one full sample chapter (generally the first chapter) that no agent will be able to resist. More on the query letter in a future post.