The dreaded synopsis. I’ve yet to find a writer who enjoys writing these things, but all agree that it is one of the most essential tools in finding an agent and getting a book published. So, today, I’m going to show you a method of dealing with this horrible creature that might help make it a little less painful.
There are many forms this thing takes — different lengths, styles, etc — but they all fall into one of two main categories. Those written before the book and those written after. If you’re writing a synopsis before the book has been written, chances are either a) you’re an established author and must present a synopsis to the publisher in order to contract your next book or b) you use a synopsis much like an outline. There are many other reasons you might do it before you’ve written the book but these are the usual two. The best reason, the reason we all should write a synopsis at the beginning is because then the darn thing is done while you’re in the creation process and is, therefore, a little bit fun.
But, alas, most of us don’t do this. Especially writers just getting started. Most unpublished novelists get an idea, do their research, outline (if it’s their thing), and start writing. So, you’ve finished the novel and now you’ve got to take this 100k words you’ve slaved over for a year and condense it into five or less pages. But they have to be exciting pages that convey the novel so an agent or editor can see that it’s an exciting, complete story. Oy!
Well, here’s a slow but powerful process that I’ve found works wonders.
- Write the opening of the book in one paragraph of about 3-5 sentences (if you need a second paragraph, that’s fine. If you need 7 sentences, that’s fine. Just try to shoot for the minimum). Cut out detailed descriptions, secondary characters, etc. Just establish who the main character is, what the main conflict is, and, if needed, the world the book exists in. The sentences don’t have to be beautiful or complex or clever. They just have to get the information across clearly. Once you’ve done that (and it may take hours), you’re done for the day.
- The next day, do the same thing, but this time you write the end of the book. Again, one paragraph, 3-5 sentences, explaining how the book finishes. Finished with that? You’re done for the day.
- The next day, you’ll follow this same pattern only this time you’ll focus on the key point in the middle of the book. This might be where things are the worst for the MC, or it might be the MC’s turning point, or it might be a big set-piece battle. Whatever the case, distill it into one paragraph, 3-5 sentences. Then you’re done for the day.
- The next two days are for finding one or two key points between the opening and the middle, and between the middle and the end. These key moments are then given the one paragraph, 3-5 sentences treatment.
- Look at that! You’ve now written a complete synopsis of your novel. You’re not done, yet. But you are for today. Like a novel or a short story, you need to take a breather and get a little space between you and what you’ve written.
- Next day (or two) — Take a look at what you wrote. If you’re synopsis is more than five pages, you need to go back and start cutting it down until its five or less. Many agents and editors will accept up to 10 pages for a synopsis, and if you’re writing a 120k epic fantasy you might need that many pages, but for most writers, less than five pages is a good guideline. You also need to make sure the flow is smooth from one paragraph to the next. Finally, you want to punch up the sentences you have to make them exciting. Use the techniques we’ve described in past posts to get the most from each word and phrase. You have limited space here, so make the most of it.
This may seem too simple to work, but it does. By taking it one day for one paragraph, you’ll stop yourself from trying to cram in every little detail. And by doing the paragraphs out of order, you’ll stay focused on the main story and not add in scenes that don’t help the synopsis.
Finally, some general guidelines that are standard in the business: Use a standard font like Times New Roman or Courier. Double-space the synopsis (this one gets argued back and forth. If you choose to go single-space, then lessen the total pages of the synopsis). The first time you mention a character capitalize the entire NAME. Afterwards, always refer to Name in the same way. In other words, avoid Nickname for Name. Include the entire story. Agents and editors want to know exactly what the outcome is. This is not the place for teasers. This is where you are displaying a short version of the entire product. Do not include sub-plots, minor characters, extensive inner dialogues, etc. The synopsis should just highlight the main plot points of the novel.
While this won’t work for all, and the guidelines are argued by everyone, the general idea holds true. I’m sure my fellow MW contributors will have their own take on this, but this is what has worked for me. Most importantly, I found this method to be the least stressful way to deal with the whole, horrid mess.