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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