Thursday, 9 May 2013

Synopsis Support



Here’s what I want you to do: take your novel of 300 or so pages and rewrite it as a 500 word flash fiction piece, keeping all the major events and give me the same tone and the same pacing.

This is what it feels like for most of us when faced with having to do the synopsis.

Clearly, this is a ridiculous thing to attempt. Even if you could do it (and I’m guessing some people can—maybe one day I’ll meet one of them), the time and energy it would take hardly seems worth it.

You would think if someone really wanted to know if a book’s any good, they would look at the premise, read a few pages and if it caught their interest, keep reading. You know, like someone who reads books.

So why don’t agents and publishers do that?  In fact, what is it they’re actually looking for when they ask for a 1, 3, 5 or 10 page synopsis?

Firstly, there’s no way to genuinely condense a whole book down to one page. Think of how much is lost when a novel gets adapted into a movie, and that takes a great deal of skill to reduce a 400 page manuscript down to 120 pages.

If you shorten and summarise, you will have to leave out stuff.  Assuming your book isn’t 80% padding, that’s going to have an effect.

But people who work in the industry know that. They aren’t going to expect the full experience in a side of A4. What they will be able to tell is if the story DOESN’T work. Which is very useful and a great time saver.

If you like the idea of a story and the writing sample seems competent, then the only way to know if it works as a story is to read it. But a synopsis will tell you if it goes off the rails at some point , or if the last act doesn’t make sense, or any kind of weirdness the writers goes off on.

So structurally you want to show your story has a beginning, middle and end, and that one thing leads to another.

But even if you cross that hurdle, all you’ve proven is that you aren’t entirely incompetent. It still doesn’t mean the book is any more than fair to middling.

That’s not to a synopsis won’t impress an agent into wanting to read the full manuscript, perhaps even with some eagerness.  But that won’t be because the synopsis confirmed the quality of the story, it will be more likely because there were one or two things in the synopsis—a scene, a twist, an idea—that appealed to them. 

You like the premise, the first chapter seems well written, look at the synopsis, this bit about the zombies forming a dance troop and going on America’s Got Talent sounds interesting, you give the rest of the manuscript a read.

My point being you don’t need to worry about making the synopsis a perfect version of your novel written on the head of a pin in order to impress the agent. You just need to show it goes to interesting places or contains moments of emotion.

The synopsis should show the story progresses in a way that makes sense, and contains scenes that sound interesting. Everything else is garnish.

Most people manage to do the first part. There are plenty of articles telling you which pieces of information you need to relate key events to the reader. And that can stop you getting thrown out immediately, and in some cases get you a full read (if for example the agent is looking a particular type of story and your story is of that type).

But in order to create a synopsis that’s an effective selling tool, it’s the second part that will most times catch an agent’s, or any reader’s, interest. Hopefully your book contains these sorts of moments already. Either something unusual or unexpected happens, or some kind of emotion comes off the page.

This is the key to a good synopsis. Not an accurate representation of your novel from beginning to end, but to get the reader to feel something in those 500 words. Because if you can get them out of scanning mode into feeling mode, then even if the synopsised story is basically this then this then this, that emotion will make them want to check out the full version.

The emotion I’m talking about can be surprise at a turn of events, laughter, or something more heartfelt. But even one instance of that will make your story stand out in a way a perfectly sculpted miniaturisation of your book won’t.

So how do you create emotion in such a short space, and at the same time fulfil all the other requirements of a synopsis? Come back for the second part of this post on Monday and I’ll tell you.
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25 comments:

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

That was such a good point about using the synopsis to create the feeling you want the reader/agent/editor to have - the same feeling you want them to have when reading the novel. I am definitely going to keep that in mind the next time I write up a synopsis. I think I'll also try and utilize my flash fiction writing skills more. :)

E.J. Wesley said...

Fantastic post, Mood! The synopsis is so vexing, and I know most writers (me included) aren't 100% clear on what purpose it serves in the hands of an agent, etc. Definitely cleared things up for me.

I practiced writing a synopsis for my current story by creating a chapter outline before I'd written a word of the story. I had it all in my mind, but just the process of trying to articulate it concisely really helped focus my vision. (And as you pointed out, showed me where some massive holes were in my original concept.)

Looking forward to part 2, and hoping I can pick up some more tips. :)

Sarah Foster said...

Great post! I had to write a two page synopsis for my WIP for a contest entry, but now I feel like never ever looking at it again. I'll probably start from scratch when the time comes. Looking forward to part 2.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That first synopsis was difficult for me. (Fortunately, I've only had to do the one.) Just have to hit the highlights.

L.G. Smith said...

I just finished (yesterday, in fact) writing a four page synopsis for my WIP, and I agree emotion is where it's at for conveying the story. Otherwise it's just a "this happened then this then this" type of summation and that's not very interesting. You have to find a way to demonstrate those life changing events, the black moment when all is lost, and maybe the triumph of overcoming challenge at the end. Really tough to do in just a few pages, but it's a good exercise for looking under the hood of the novel and seeing how it runs.

Cathrina Constantine said...

Query letters and synopsis are mind-boggling. And then to tweak them every once in a while for the right hook drives me insane. Your post is very good and helpful, thank you.

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

Oh you dropped the "S" word. Now everyone is gonna know you keep an adult blog. Shame on you Moody.

mooderino said...

@Madeline - I wish I had flash fiction skills.

@EJ - thanks!

@Sarah - it feels a bit like pot luck with those sorts of contests.

@Alex - One and done. Sounds good to me.

@Cathrina - you're welcome.

Michael - now I gone and done it.

@LG - i think just one moment like that is enough, and it's surprisingly rare.



Donna Hole said...

A cliff hanger :( Well, I'll be back. Some good info here I could use with my current submissions package.

......dhole

Writer said...

I'll be checking back too ... looking forward to advice on how to get them out of scanning mode and into feeling mode (well said!)

Mary Gottschalk said...

A great post and very timely ... I just read through two different "checklists" of how to write a synopsis (both longer than 1 page!) and never got to what I thought was your best points ... show that the story works, that you are a competent writer, and then give one or two bits that convey the mood and feeling of the story. Yesterday, I was in despair. Today I am prepared to go forth and do battle. THANKS!

LD Masterson said...

I'm keeping this post and I'll be waiting impatiently for Monday's.

Mama J said...

Thanks for this. I hate writing a synopsis and add so much pressure on myself. I think I need to relax a bit about it!

Lexa Cain said...

Synopses are such a pain - especially ones less than 500 words. They favor shorter, simpler, and weakly-plotted novels. If your novel is complex with a lot of twists, you end up having to cut half of them out - then your CPs dutifully say, "This makes no sense." I've blatantly lied to get from point A to point K because there's no way to exclude points B through J and have anyone understand it. So I make stuff up. Well, isn't that what fiction writers do? lol

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am bookmarking this post Mooderino. Synopsis is my least favourite aspect of writing. I just dread writing them and the result is horrible.

mooderino said...

@Donna - I hope I'll have something worth reading!

@Writer - see you then!

@Mary - Tally ho!

@LD - Now,let's not get our hopes up...

@Mama J - Trying to do everything at once never ends well.

@Lexa - I see the job of the synopsis as getting the manuscript read.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - I'm not too fond of the either.

Elise Fallson said...

Can I use A3 for my synop? (;
I'll be back Monday.

Sharon Himsl said...

Giving our synopsis an emotional punch makes sense. Less daunting than trying to summarize all! I will refer back to post and look forward to Monday's. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Elise - if you fold it up maybe no one will notice?

@Sharon - I should probably start writing that second post...

Lynda R Young said...

It's mighty good to be reminded that the synopsis doesn't have to be perfect.

Elise Fallson said...

*tapping finger on table, looking at the time*
(;

mooderino said...

@Lynda - effective, but not perfect.

@Elise - it's up!

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

SO glad I dropped by today. I really appreciate any information on how to create an interesting synopsis.

Your points are clear and make complete sense. I am off to read part two!

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