A new year full of writing possibilities, hopefully including the most exciting possibility: sending out your submission package to agents and/or editors.
You’ve finished your novel, revised, revised, revised, and polished.
Your query letter is tantalizing.
Now you're in need of the last, and most important, piece of your submission package--the synopsis.
I hear the rumbles and grumbles echoing over the cyber waves.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Most writers cringe at the word synopsis.
But we all know, writing, and especially submitting, isn’t for the weak. Stay strong. Build more writing muscles, and write that sparkling story summary.
Sparkling summary--seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?
But with your synopsis, as with any piece of writing you submit to agents, editors, contest judges, the synopsis should reflect your voice, your style, and be your best work.
Let's take a quick look at what a synopsis is and what it is not:
What a synopsis is NOT:
- It is not a blow-by-blow summary of every single plot point in your book.
- It is not back cover blurb.
- It is not a backstory dump.
- It does not introduce every secondary character.
- It is not your main character's resume.
- It is not a dry list of events.
- It doesn't include dialogue or paragraphs from your manuscript.
What is a synopsis?
- It is a narrative summary of your book written in the voice of your manuscript.
- Its primary purpose is to summarize your story in a way that makes the reader want to read the whole text.
- It is written in present tense.
- It is written in third person--even if your book is written in first.
- It is written in active voice.
- It is told in chronological order from beginning to end, no flashbacks.
- It introduces only your main characters, main conflict, and basic emotional arc.
- It delivers major plot twists and your ending. No cliffhangers allowed.
- It is a skillful weaving of your characters, the stakes, and the major plot events that move your characters from beginning to end.
- It shows the pacing of your novel.
- It should be in the same tone as your novel.
An ideal synopsis should be like reading a mini version of your book.
The query hooks the agent or editor.
Your first pages will convince the agent or editor they want to read more.
With a synopsis you have the chance to showcase your complete story's style, your writing, your excellent plot, and your VOICE.
A lot of synopsis writing involves plot, but . . .
Let's Consider Voice
It’s important to establish your voice early in the synopsis. You're striving for the same tone and mood as your story so the editor or agent can get a true sense of your writing.
If you're having trouble with your voice and tone coming through in your synopsis, or in certain paragraphs, imagine your main character.
How would your main character write the synopsis?
You can even do this as an exercise.
Write your synopsis, or parts of the synopsis, in your main character's POV either in first person or close third.
But remember, a synopsis is usually written in third person present tense. However, it's not hard to convert to this POV from the above first-person exercise.
Let's look at some example synopsis paragraphs.
Listen to the tone and voice in Sandra Tilley's first paragraph for her 500-word synopsis for The Ghost and Mrs. Miller, soon to be published with Wild Rose Press.
LIBBY MILLER grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, where life was simple and new ideas were as slow as her Southern drawl. Childhood friends were forever like ELI ANDERSON, master prankster and keeper of Libby's secret; JESSE KING, ace quarterback, on and off the field; and NEIL MILLER, studious, stable, and the friend she marries.
Here’s a different voice and tone from a piece of my middle grade synopsis for Hertz Gets Fused.
Great-granddad POPS dresses patriotic-weird and drives a Cadillac, named ANASTASIA. When Anastasia breaks down on the way to Show Low, Hertz is worried. Pops is not and Hertz gets his first tool-filled lesson. Back on the road, Pops makes a stop for pancake sundaes and things go awry. Avis pukes. Hertz slips. And two local boys, JORDAN and MATT, recognize Hertz as the Phoenix Firebug--the kid on the news who set his house on fire.
Here’s another unique voice for Yves Masson’s historical fiction novel in progress, Under the Gun.
Haunted by the trauma of combat, the horrors he witnessed, and the death of the woman he loved, estranged from his family for years, Alain has to fight the toughest battle of his young life, alone, against a hidden enemy, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, only known at the time as battle fatigue.
And one more example. A unique Christian YA thriller voice in Megan Menard’s synopsis for her novel in progress Pursued.
ZACH NELSON is a sixteen-year-old problem-crusher and solution-maker, MVP-ing his soccer team to the championship in hopes of a college scholarship, protecting his little sister CELIA from his mom’s abusive boyfriend, CARTER WRIGHT, and fighting for safe foster care—but finding God and learning to trust him with his family and his dreams requires the scariest play of all—surrender.
Even though your synopsis has to be tight and trimmed to the bare essentials, there's still room for your voice.
Let’s Consider Writing Tight
That’s probably the biggest fear I see when working with writers on their synopses.
Synopsis language has to be very stripped down. Every must word count, and often do double-duty.
With practice, patience, and super sharp scissors 🙂
it is possible to cut and trim and tighten, yet still maintain voice and tone and intrigue.
Here's an example of tightening a synopsis sentence:
At school, Kelsey searches for Brandon all through the halls and finally finds him in the music room, where she tells him she can’t believe what he said about her in the cafeteria and wants nothing to do with him ever again.
After searching everywhere, Kelsey finds Brandon in the music room, gives him her I’m-dumping-you speech, using the cafeteria incident as her excuse.
Let's look at an example of tightening from Lauri Corkum’s synopsis for her novel-in-progress The Prism Protocol.
She wakes, cuffed to a hospital bed alongside Tom, also wounded in the shootout. Realizing she is going to be thrown into a prison for terrorism, Danni breaks out of the cuffs and escapes from the hospital.
She wakes, cuffed to a hospital bed beside Tom, also wounded in the shootout. Realizing she’s going to be thrown into a prison for terrorism, Danni escapes.
Here's a nice tight piece of Alice Yu's 300 word synopsis for her novel-in-progress Soul Affinity.
Vaktar Councillor BERTRAM SINCLAIR, mastermind behind the murders, uncovers Aziza's secret and attacks her best friends. Aziza risks everything to save them. Her plan backfires: the Vaktar order her immediate execution.
Another tight piece, this one from Becky Rawsley's 500-word synopsis for her novel-in-progress Merlin's Children.
Devastated by Cale's death, Tess returns home. But there's no time to grieve. Morgana has taken Tess's brother and mother to the Fae realm.
Synopsis writing comes with its own set of challenges, but like any piece of writing, it can be conquered, and believe it or not, can even be fun.
I’ll leave you with one more checklist.
* shares character descriptors which may explain their beginning conflicts and motivations.
* the story setting is clear and grounds the reader.
* provides goals, conflict, and motivation enough to make characters believable and easy to relate to.
* goals are strong enough for characters to keep going with the odds stacked against them.
* identifies major conflicts, both external and internal.
* identifies major turning points.
* synopsis is well-paced.
* voice shines through.
* tone reflects that of the manuscript.
* writing is clear and tight.
* adequately resolves all major conflicts.
- avoids grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.
- uses standard industry-accepted formatting.
And if 2017 finds you in need of a sizzling, scintillating synopsis, maybe you’ll want to consider my upcoming January class with Lawson Writing Academy. where we truly have a blast curing that horrifying writerly disease--synopsis syndrome.
Why do you think a synopsis is so difficult to write? What "tricks" do you have to get you through one?
Suzanne Purvis is a transplanted Canadian living in the Deep South, where she traded “eh” for “y’all.” An author of long, short, flash fiction for both children and adults, she has won several awards including those sponsored by the University of Toronto, RWA, Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable, and Women Who Write. You can find her work in print anthologies, magazines, ezines, and ebooks. www.suzannepurvis.com