Writing The Dreaded Synopsis
By Anne R. Allen
June, 2007, 15:40
I've never known a novelist who liked composing a synopsis. It's just not fun to reduce our breathtaking prose, unforgettable characters and LOL humour into what seems like a boring, indigestible lump of nonsense.
Unfortunately, that lump is our most important marketing tool. Virtually all agents and publishers ask that you include one with your query letter. What they mean by "synopsis" (plural, synopses) is a 500-1000 word overview of your novel, including the ending.
What follows are a few other helpful facts about synopses.
A synopsis is not:
- A hook (defined in my last column.)
- A blurb
- You want to avoid even a whiff of blurbitude. Do not write: "In the greatest love story since Pyramis and Thisbe, Brickyard Blues describes, vividly, a unique love between a woman and her patio wall . . . "
- No cliff-hangers or rhetorical questions. Avoid all versions of: "Will the earthquake destroy their love forever?" or "Can used brick learn to love again?"
- An outline, a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the novel's events. This is easier to write than a good synopsis, but it's a total snore. Luckily not many agents care to slog through them these days, except for children's books.
- Write approximately 250 words for each 100 manuscript pages.
- Print in standard manuscript form, with first line indents and double spacing, in the same font as your manuscript.
- 12 pt. Times New Roman/Times is standard, but some purists are wedded to the old "typewriter" style Courier (which is still standard for screenplays.) Remember, when in doubt, guidelines are our friends.
- Never, ever use a cute font or coloured ink.
- When a one pager is requested, single space with first-line indents and no double space between paragraphs.
- This "first-line indents" thing with single spacing is new to me, but a post about it on Anne Mini's Author! Author! blog started a heated discussion among Miss Snark's minions, so I looked it up and found this is indeed the standard one page synopsis format. (Query letters, too, should have indents and no inter-paragraph double spacing. Who knew?)
- On page one, put "Synopsis of Title, Genre, Word Count." On subsequent pages, put a slug with synopsis/title in the left hand corner with your last name and the page number on the right.
- Write in third person, present tense, using an omniscient point of view.
- Your MAIN characters. Don't name too many of the players. If you need to mention a spear carrier, call him "the neighbour" or "the killer's first victim." Too many names can be confusing in such a condensed format.
- The important events in sequence. Don't waste a lot of time on motivations. Skip subplots as much as possible.
- The whole plot, including the ENDING.
- Mimic the tone of your novel.
- This is a tough one, but for a chatty romance, you don't want a just-the-facts-ma'am synopsis. And if you're pitching a thriller, try to keep it from sounding silly. (As John Lahr said, "farce is tragedy speeded up," something to be aware of when synopsising. Some of the funniest things I've read are synopses of tragic opera plots.)
- Start with one or two sentences stating the plot of the whole novel.
- In a few more sentences, give the motivation of the protagonist and the setting. (In Fantasy/Sci Fi, keep world-building to broadly sketched essentials.)
- Describe each major story arc in sequence, stating the conflict and resolution.
- Finally, state the resolution of the primary conflict and how the protagonist has changed from the experience.
When to write a synopsis:
- If you're smart, write it when you're a few chapters into your first draft.
- After your novel is done, write another synopsis, because your story will be completely different.
- If you're me, you wait until the twelfth draft of your novel has been sitting in a drawer for six months and you haven't sent it out because you so much don't want to write the damned synopsis. Don't do this.
The publishing industry's conventions are always evolving, so keep your information up-to-date. Older writing guides say a synopsis can be up to twelve pages, but anything that long-winded won't be read these days. A hip new agency suggests bulleting your plot points, but more conservative ones want "the flow of a good story," so always check websites for individual preferences before you submit.
Good luck. You'll feel so much better when it's done.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and freelance writer. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org
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