#14: Facing down the dreaded SYNOPSIS! Dun-dun-dunn…

Very few authors like writing synopses because they are so stinkin’ hard! You have to explain your entire book’s plot in a few pages, make your story sound fascinating, and your characters irresistible. No easy task, as you might well imagine.

In encouragement and consolation, I’ve talked to several agents who have made the following statements:

Quote: “I read the submission first. If I like it, I’ll read the synopsis. The query letter is last.”

Which means: If your writing is compelling, that’s what captures their attention. If your synopsis is succinct and easy to follow, they’ll go ahead and collect your info from your query and request the full manuscript.

Quote: “I won’t read a synopsis if it’s more than two or three pages. If an author can’t encapsulate their story efficiently, then they don’t know what that story is about!”

Which means: Relax. Figure out the guts of your main plotline because that’s what you’ll want to include. And shorter is better these days, so leave them wanting more.

Now for the nuts and bolts:

1. Use complete sentences, paragraph style and – why, I don’t know – always in present tense. “When at last Gertrude spies the sea monster, she understands Bernard’s night terrors.”

2. Define the who-what-when-where of your story. “It’s 1918 and Harold has returned to Wisconsin, narrowly escaping the Great War in Europe only to face the terrifying influenza epidemic at home.”

3. For each main character from whose point of view the story is told, explain the following (GMC):

  • What’s the character’s goal? “Jimmy spent his entire life preparing to be a rodeo cowboy.”
  • What’s their motivation? “He watched the men – and women – in Podunk, Texas long enough to know who got respect, and who got tobacco juice spat on their boots.”
  • What’s the conflict, a.k.a. what’s stopping them? “But when his father dies, leaving his mother alone with a pile of debts and a passel of younger kids at home, Jimmy is forced to work the family’s flower shop just to put food, and a lovely floral arrangement, on the table.”
  • Only include secondary characters in the synopsis where they affect your main characters’ GMC.

NOTE: Conflict is essential to any storyline. Conflict exists within each character and between each character. Make certain *it appears that* your hero and your heroine can not both achieve their goals because those goals are in conflict.

4. List the high points of the plot. Don’t include every twist and turn, only the main ones. Briefly include the sub-plot and how it affects the central story. Be succinct, but don’t leave out any “cliff hanging” moments. Think of movie trailers as good examples.

5. Explain how those plot twists affect the main characters and how they feel about it. It’s the human connection that is compelling. If your synopsis is a dry re-hash of your plot outline, you’ll bore the agent/editor. “When Jenny’s husband reappears, alive but paralyzed by his captors, she experiences a panicking moment of satisfaction at seeing him in the chair.”

6. Tell how the book ends. This is not a “tease” – the editor really needs to know. Do you tie up the story effectively? Or have you left things dangling? Is there a springboard for another book? (If there is, that should be obvious. Don’t point it out.)

Following are the generally accepted guidelines for formatting your synopsis. Before you submit, however, you’ll check the agent/editor’s preferences online. If none are stated, then go with these:

  • Double-spaced
  • Size 12 font, Times New Roman
  • Top left – Your name plus “writing as” if you use a pen name, your complete contact information
  • Top right – Synopsis: The Book Title, genre(s), total word count
  • Include page numbers
  • Write no less than 2, but no more than 5 pages – 3 seems preferable
  • Put characters’ names in bold the first time they appear.
  • Don’t staple any pages together.

Before you submit, read your synopsis aloud. If you trip over a word or phrase, change it. Flow is essential. And if you can, have someone read it aloud to you. Then you’ll hear how it sounds to someone who is seeing it for the first time, like the agent/editor you’re sending it to! Adjust as necessary.

Synopses are considered one of the hardest parts about writing. But you can do it. Remember the key is to make your story sound enticing-exciting-moving-satisfying-coherent. Too many details just get in the way.

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