The Hateful Synopsis

Nearly every author I know bemoans synopsis writing. This is the part of our job that isn’t the red-headed stepchild, but rather the creature we keep locked in a closet, too ashamed to call it ours.

Which I know is a horrible analogy, but we’re trying to be honest here.

None of us enjoy this part of the process.

We skirt around that closet door for as long as possible. Sometimes we even skip submitting to certain places that require the synopsis and move on. (Though I suggest you take a long hard look at places that do not require it before hitting that “send” button.)

In the end, most legitimate agents and publishing houses require this 1 to 3 page summary of your 75 to 120 thousand word novel. So we find ourselves cracking the door open on that dreaded closet to try wrangling the beast that is our synopsis.

This is not for the faint of heart.

There are any number of agents and editors out there that have examples of synopsis writing to help us along the way. In particular, I like to frequent Writer’s Digest. They have a whole section of this stuff. Go check them out.

Now then – assuming you’ve glanced through the sundry of articles Writer’s Digest has to offer and you’re still intimidated by the roar emitting from your personal synopsis closet – I do have one or two tips that have helped me in the past.

Before you write the synopsis, have a separate sheet of paper (or Word document) with the following information clearly defined:

  1. Main character, their motivation, and something that marks them as unique. EXAMPLE: Tessa Pines is a veteran trying to overcome the trauma she endured in Afghanistan. 
  2. Major characters and how they intersect the main character’s life. EXAMPLE: CORDON MORANT is Tessa’s ex-fiancee and high school sweetheart. He shows up unannounced at the bookstore Tessa has been frequenting since her return home and forces her to confront both the distant past of their relationship and her more recent losses. MARISOL WILLIAMS is Tessa’s roommate at the university and a psychology student who seems to have chosen Tessa as a subject to observe and learn from. 
  3. Inciting incident. AKA – What pushes your character out of status quo and into the main story. EXAMPLE: When Marisol’s lab partner leaves her hanging with a large paranormal investigating project, Tessa finds herself volunteering to help. 
  4. Twist moments/Game Changers/Major Plot Moments. Call them what you want, there should be two or three of these in the book. These are the moments in the story that push us toward the ending. EXAMPLE: Oops, this place is really haunted and now everyone is in danger. 
  5. Climax. I’m pretty sure we all know what that means. EXAMPLE: Tessa faces off against a possessed former comrade in the middle of the investigation, who is rightly upset by her avoidance tactics throughout the book. (If this were the real thing, I’d explain exactly what happens here. No cheap withholding of information, agents/editors want to know that everything makes sense.)
  6. Resolution. EXAMPLE: Tessa admits that she needs some help facing everything that has happened – from Afghanistan to the incident at the investigation – and prepares to move forward. 

OK. With all that information already scribbled on a separate piece of paper, you know the bare bones of what your synopsis needs. Different agents and editors want different lengths, so I write three; a one page, a two page, and a three page.

The bare bones I have on the sheet can pretty much boil down to the one page synopsis already, so that one is easy. I just have to go in and clean it up. For the two and three pages I go in and add pertinent elements and important character moments, which tends to fill up the extra space.

Anyway, that’s my tip. The bare bones sheet has helped me in recent years so maybe it can help you too.

Don’t sweat the beast in the closet, guys. As hard as it is, writing a full novel is harder and you already got through that. I promise, you’ll get through this too.

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