Writing the synopsis, dammit
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” This line, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is actually from sportswriter Red Smith, but whoever said it must have been talking about the writing of synopses, surely. They are a necessary evil and there’s no avoiding them. Here’s why they’re necessary – and how to tackle them – or at least to make them a little less evil.
First, the basics. A synopsis is one page of A4 ( or 8 1/2 X 11″). No longer, though you can write single space and pull the font size down to 10, to squeeze more words on that single page. They’re written in third person present tense, whether your novel is or isn’t, and it should still follow the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. A synopsis will typically run 5 – 7 paragraphs, with the opening paragraph introducing the main character and theme – what the story is about – and why it matters. The opening paragraph feels most like a “pitch” or a “blurb”, with the following paragraphs explaining the nuts-and-bolts of the story, the who-what-where-why-when. Who interacts with the main character? What is at stake? Where does the action occur? Why is the story being told right now – how urgent is the “when” of it? These chapters should be written in proportion to their importance in the story – you don’t want to waste precious lines explaining backstory; you want to use them to show how the character makes choices and changes because of them – cause and effect. The last chapter is the resolution – how does the book end, what is the biggest conflict/crisis, and how has the main character been changed by it? There are no cliff-hangers in a synopsis. It sounds easy enough, when you boil it down like that, doesn’t it? But then, it comes time to actually write one, the evil rises again.
Why is it so hard? Often, it can be because the synopsis exposes work that isn’t done or isn’t ready. The Literary Consultancy says, “If it is because the story is insufficiently clear, persuasive or gripping, then more work needs to be done to get the manuscript into the kind of shape that would persuade an agent or editor to consider it further.” If we can’t boil the story down to one page, we don’t know the story well enough to tell it to ourselves. In this vein, agent Jonny Geller said, via Twitter: “A novel synopsis is deadening, – think of it as a letter to a friend about a great story you just heard.” (His recent Ted Talk on What Makes a Bestseller is pretty great, too.)
Synopses exist for several people – and the most important of them is you, the writer. When submitting your work, prospective agents ask for synopses as a means to see that you have finished the book and that you have an ending. They don’t want to waste time on something that isn’t ready or that doesn’t make sense. Once you have an agent, she will ask for a synopsis every time you send your work to her, mostly as a tool to understand what you are trying to do, particularly in early drafts. Does your synopsis match your chapters? Does it answer the questions of who-what-where-why-when? Once your book is sold, that synopsis might still follow it around for a while, with editors using it to get a sense of flow, of what you’re attempting and if you’re achieveing it; it might become a marketing tool or an aid to the publicity team. So, once you’ve finished your book it is essential that the synopsis is “right”. But what is right? And how do you know? And how do you develop a synopsis over time and over drafts so that the synopsis is working for you at every stage?
Let’s hear from the experts: Emma Darwin, author and creator of the wonderful blog This Itch of Writing, not only admits to “really enjoy(ing) writing them,” she also defends them as an “extremely useful tool for developing your own work”. Do read her excellent post on “the developmental synopsis” and how they help writers, at any stage, to assess narrative arc and the chainlinks of cause and effect. For Darwin, the synopsis is not a “shrinking down” of the narrative onto one page, but a new story itself – a very short story about the story, as it were, with the interesting challenge to make this short-short somehow “feel” like the novel. Nicola Morgan has a very useful e-book, Write a Great Synopsis, which you can purchase and download from her site. Here’s her pitch: Write a Great Synopsis covers the function of a synopsis, differences between outlines and synopses, requirements for different agents and publishers, finding the heart of your book, non-linear plots, sub-plots and long novels. It answers all the questions and confusions that writers have. I introduce you to my patent Crappy Memory Tool, explain the art of crafting a 25-word pitch, and demonstrate with examples. For an overview of her synopsis process – plus shoes – she’s put a great powerpoint on her site from her 2014 talk at the Festival of Writing. Lastly, read Chuck Wendig’s take on how to prepare for the query stage and how to entice an agent, with plenty of good advice on how to write a synopsis with all the spicy words you would expect of his excellent Terrible Minds blog. His “EMBRACE THE HOLY TRINITY: HOOK, BODY, CLIMAX” is terrific advice. Now, that’s probably enough avoidance from me. It really is time to rewrite that synopsis.