Monday, 13 May 2013

Synopsis Support Pt 2

A synopsis for a novel comes in two different forms.

The first is a very dry, play-by play outline of what happens without any frills or attempts to impress the reader.

The other is more of a selling document intended to get the reader to read the full manuscript.

The first type is useful for a writer working with an agent/pubisher/editor where the relationship has already been established. It’s a bit like an architect and a builder going over blueprints. There’s no need for embellishments or trying to capture the style of the book.

In this case it’s already a done deal, and the reason for the synopsis is that it’s easier to discuss changes and cuts in a shorter document than a longer one.

Although, there’s no specific set length for this sort of synopsis, it’s as long as it needs to be (I’ve seen some that are 50 pages).

The only thing that I would say about this kind of synopsis is that even though it can be very dry and functional it still won’t be:  This, then this, then this. 

It will be more like:  Because of this, then this. And because of that, then this.

Showing cause and effect is necessary in both types of synopsis, as it is in all types of story.

The other type of synopsis—the kind most people reading this will be working on—is where you’re providing a busy agent/publisher with a way to tell if it’s going to be worth reading the full manuscript without having to actually read it.

It isn’t to tell them the story or show them how the story develops or whether you have an understanding of the genre. It’s to give them a good enough to reason to wade through the damn thing.  Or, more commonly, a reason not to.

The first hurdle is whether it’s written in a readable manner. If the synopsis is convoluted or hard to understand or goes off in various directions, that indicates the full manuscript may also have those problems. That may not be the case, but the possibility will most times be enough to put an agent off.

So, write it simple and clear.

But what if that doesn’t reflect the style of the novel? Shouldn’t the synopsis give a flavour of the book?


If the book is in a very specific style, then the agent will most likely read the first page or so and either hate it or love it and it won’t really matter what style the synopsis is in.

My advice is just an opinion, of course, but it’s this: Keep it simple.

Next, the thing I mentioned earlier about cause and effect needs to be present. As well as what happens, the job of the synopsis is to tell us why it happens. Not an explanation, a logical progression.

Because of this, then this. 

When the bad guys start shooting, Mary crawls under her desk and closes her eyes. 

You have to be careful not to make assumptions. If Diane gets a phone call that her daughter’s been murdered and she books the first flight to Malawi, it may seem obvious to you that her daughter was working abroad. But while it certainly won’t be a surprise to discover that’s the case, the synopsis isn't the place for the reader to figure things out.

You need to include the minimum amount of information for things to make sense in a clear an obvious way. It's a matter of judgement on the part of the writer, but in a synopsis you want to present the situation as clearly as possible.  If in doubt, clarify.

In this case, you could let the reader know the daughter was a senior executive at an international bank, or a student on a gap year, or teaching English as a foreign language. A simple statement like that won’t explain all the details, but it will ground the situation in an easy to understand context. That’s all you need. 

So, you have this short document telling the reader how events go from one to the next—how does this get anyone to read the full manuscript?

Apart from this basic framework there also needs to be something in the synopsis that catches the reader’s attention.

That could be an unexpected turn of events, a shock, something funny, something moving, some kind of memorable happening.

A lot of this depends on the kind of book you’ve written, but the point is you've already written it and in there somewhere should be something that fits the bill. There may be quite a few. You don’t need to include all of them (although more than one would be good, especially if one builds on the next).

But shouldn’t you try to match the pacing and structure of the synopsis to that of the novel?

If you can manage it, sure. But the eye-catching moment is far, far, far more important.

The easiest to write is the unexpected. You just need to write it down and if you’ve included the necessary set up then it will speak for itself. 

Mrs Braithwaite takes off her wig to reveal she is... 

However, your story may not be the type that contains shocking twists and revelations, or they might be of a more subtle nature.

That’s fine in a book, but it won’t be of much use in a synopsis. It just won’t have the effect we’re looking for. 

The other way to hook the reader is to use emotion. Obviously there are a lot of emotions to choose from, and your book will dictate what you want the reader to feel, but how do you get the emotion across in so few words?

In much the same way you would in a novel.

There are three ways to convey emotion to a reader. You can just tell them (Violet feels sad). 

You can show the effect of the emotion (Tears roll down Michael’s face). 

Or you can show the cause of the emotion (Etta holds on to Jane’s finger with her tiny hand and whispers, “Bye, Mommy,” before closing her eyes for the last time).

In practice you will probably find you need to use all three methods to get across everything you need to get across. If you try to make it all like the third approach you will quickly run out of space.

Even then it will be space consuming, but this is why it’s necessary to sacrifice some of the more intricate methods of writing a synopsis. You make the framework simple so you have room for the one or two moments that will make an impression.

Jason sees that it’s Megan calling. He rejects the call. It’s time to start the rest of his life.

So this is the end to a story where, apparently, Jason has had enough of Megan. It’s succinct and tells you what you need to know (obviously you will have read the rest of the synopsis so know the context), but it doesn’t carry much of a wallop, emotionally speaking. 

Jason finishes his coffee but remains seated, collecting his thoughts, his heart pounding in his chest. Innocent, he thinks. I’m innocent. Like he wasn't sure himself until he heard the verdict. His mobile rings, startling him. Megan—no doubt to insist she never doubted him, that she wanted him back, wanted things to go back to the way they were. He stares at the phone, and then he walks out of the coffee shop and drops the phone down the nearest grating. It falls into the darkness, taking Megan with it, and lands somewhere far below with a plop.

While I have no idea what happened between Jason and Megan, the point of the example is to show that I don't mean you have to create a huge melodramatic moment filled with strang and durm (unless that's what's in the novel). The idea is to be true to your story. But you can see the sort of difference in the amount of space you'll need, which is why you need to strip down other parts of the synopsis.
Select two or three key moments in your story that you think will have an effect and focus on getting the emotion across. Don’t be mysterious or try to raise curiosity. Make the reader feel that specific moment.

And if it feels like you haven’t captured the full story, don’t worry, you wouldn’t have anyway. But this way you will leave the reader with something that will make your story stick in their mind.

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet.


You can read some of my latest WIPs for free on Wattpad. And don't forget to check out The Funnily Enough for the latest posts on writing by other bloggers.



Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You can't capture the whole thing in a synopsis anymore than a movie can capture a book - it's just the key points.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

I don't think you have to ever say "My advice is just opinion" as the whole book industry is based on opinion.

As is, you point out some good stuff with regard to synopsis writing. Are you for hire? I'd love to have someone write my next synopsis for me. Lulz. YOU'D CHARGE TOO MUCH I KNOWS!

Elise Fallson said...

I think I could swing a very cut and dry type of synopsis, but the other kind sounds like writing a movie script, not that I have any experience in either. Anyway, I hope I never have to write a synopsis, then again, I've never had much luck on my side.

Sharon Himsl said...

Thanks for the advice. I needed it!!

mooderino said...

@Alex - it's making those key points have an effect that makes a synopsis work, I think.

@Michael - the only way to really help with a synopsis is to read the actual story. Otherwise you can never know if it's as good as it could be.

@Elise - it's a bit more compact than a movie. You have the scene already in your book, you just need to condense it without stripping out the emotion.

@Sharon - you're welcome.

Donna Hole said...

My finished novel is more emotive than active, but has plenty of action. Finding the right balance in t he synopsis is tricky for me.


Sarah Foster said...

Thanks for the great advice. I'm definitely going to keep the cause and effect idea in mind.

Lexa Cain said...

Holy moly, you've written a dissertation on synopses! The info, tips, and examples are excellent. Writing synopses are like developing a taste for liquor, it's really bitter at the beginning, but it gets better after a while! :-)

mooderino said...

@Donna - I don't think it should be too hard. Just aim to get across one or two emotional moments and you're done.

@Sarah - it makes a lot of difference to how a synopsis, and a story, flows.

@Lexa - here's hoping the next post is a lot, lot shorter.

Writer said...

Thanks again for this. Perfect timing, as I'm finishing off a synopsis for an award I'm entering.

D.G. Hudson said...

Synopsis writing is a skill that can be developed, like any letter writing. You have some excellent examples in your post.

I've only written the short synopis, not the really long one yet. At a writing conference, I took my synopsis with me and several of the authors who I met with were willing to read that to get the basics of my story. They preferred it to the one line pitch. (maybe it was the three agents/writers that I saw but that was my experience)

LD Masterson said...

I'm coming up on synopsis writing time and I'm keeping this post on my desk.

Anonymous said...

Keep it simple is sound advice.

I can't imagine writing a 50 page synopsis.

mooderino said...

@Writer - just the way I planned it...

@DG - if you seriously want an idea of what a story's about the pitch tells you very little.

@LD - hope it helps.

@Medeia - it's not that hard when you have the whole manuscript finished and no time constraints. Just do a short summary of each chapter (it soon mounts up).

Hannah Spencer said...

In all the given examples, you have used the present tense. Is this generally the best approach? I can see that it would seem more immediate to the reader and have more impact.

mooderino said...

@Hannah - yes, synopsis is written in present tense. Not sure why, but it's the industry standard.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Fantastic examples Mood. I really learned a lot of this subject today. Thanks!

Tweeted both parts!

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