Monday, February 09, 2009

The Synopsis

It’s probably one of the most dreaded words in publishing. Any time I tell any author she has to submit or write a synopsis, I invariably get a loud groan. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and I know of very few authors who like writing them.

But what makes a good synopsis and how much do they really matter?

A synopsis can matter not at all and it can matter greatly depending on the editor and on the situation. To make things easier on you, I think you should always assume that a synopsis matters a great deal. If you’re submitting a full manuscript with a synopsis, the synopsis probably won’t matter as much (most of us would prefer just to read the manuscript). However, if you have reached the stage in your career where you are selling on proposal and no longer need to write a full manuscript before sending to editors, a synopsis is crucial. In this case, it’s the only thing an editor has to judge the rest of your book by. The synopsis is used as a guide to see if the plot and characterization follows through as strongly as it did in your chapters.

If you are submitting a proposal first (as many agents will ask you to do) you better have a strong synopsis. In that case, we often use the synopsis as a guide to see if we should be requesting the rest of the manuscript or not. We might love the chapters, but I’ve read some really screwy synopses (in which the plot took a dramatic turn in the wrong direction) that have pushed me to reject the book rather than ask for more.

How long should a synopsis be?

Well, for the most part that depends on the requirements of the house, the line, or the agent or editor. For me, my answer is to always tell you to send whatever you have. However, that being said, I prefer something shorter and more succinct (if you have it). I think the perfect length of a synopsis is 3 to 5 pages. That should be enough for you to give all of the important details of the story. To reiterate here, it doesn’t matter how long your synopsis is as long as it is strong and tells the story: 10 pages is fine too.

What do agents/editors look for in a synopsis?

And this is what you’re really here to read. Because believe it or not, a synopsis can make or break your ability to get a book deal. Numerous times I’ve received rejection letters from editors who were basing their feedback on the synopsis, because quite simply what they were commenting on wasn’t even in the chapters we submitted. When trying to sell on proposal (and yes, it is possible to sell fiction on proposal), an editor is going to place a great deal of emphasis on the synopsis. It’s the only way for her to figure out how the book plays out.

So how can you be sure your synopsis sings?

  • The writing. Like your book, your chapters, and your query, your synopsis needs to be well-written and strong. A weak, hastily written synopsis is going to give the editor the impression that you’re a weak writer who doesn’t or won’t take the time necessary to really make sure that what you’re turning in is the best it can be.
  • The voice. It’s not as easy to make your voice come through in a synopsis, but it should still be evident, at least to a small degree. The synopsis should not be a dull, dry play-by-play (or even chapter breakdown) of your book. It should never say something like, “Chapter three begins with . . .” Instead it should be your retelling of the story, in your voice. It should be a short narrative of your story.
  • Showing, not telling. Like the writing in your manuscript, the synopsis should show the highlights of what is important to your book, what scenes move the story forward and show how the characters grow. We don’t need to know about every single secondary character and we don’t need to be told what happens every step of the way. We do however need to know how the core of the story plays out, the heart of the story.
  • Conflict. This is a bit of a repeat of what I said above, but sometimes people hear things different, so let me reiterate, the synopsis should show the conflicts and challenges faced by your characters and in your plot. What is keeping your characters apart or bringing them together? What challenges does your sleuth face or your warrior? How is the crime solved, what are the red herrings?
  • Genre. If you are writing a paranormal romance, for example, make sure that your synopsis has an equal balance of showing how both the paranormal and the romance come into play. Editors are buying your book partly based on hook, which is the paranormal element, but also want to make sure that the romance is strong enough to place this on the the romance list. If you’re writing a mystery or suspense, you want to show how the characters solve the crime, and in suspense, you want to show the suspense. If you’re writing fantasy you want to show the world building, but you also want to make sure the plot is equally strong.
I have to admit, I hate a synopsis as much as you do, but they are a necessary evil of the business, especially when you reach the point in your career where you get to sell on proposal, and because many of my clients are now at that stage I’m working more and more with them on creating a synopsis that’s as strong as the chapters they’ve written.

As with everything else you’re doing besides writing the book, make sure you take the time to write a strong synopsis, but throw all the rules out the window. Write a synopsis that sounds like you and that works with your book and for your story. That’s the synopsis we want to see.

Jessica

32 comments:

Kimber An said...

And practice, practice, practice. That's all I can add.

D.A. Riser said...

Thanks for the scoop on synopsis writing. I've noticed that some agents ask for a one page synopsis. Fortunately, the one page synopsis is much easier to write after sculpting a five pager.

selestial-owg said...

As always, thank you for this insight, Jessica.

It seems like most agents either want a 'brief' synopsis or a 'detailed' one. To that end I have a one page single-spaced and a 5 page, single-spaced. I hope that is enough.

green ray said...

I got practice reading synopses at the opera, quickly, before the lights went down (or in the case of the Met, before the lights went "up"). But the problem with them is that they never contain the music, the music of the opera, or the music of the book. You might read a synopsis of Wagner's Ring, but you'll never get the glorious music with it. So I wish so much importance weren't placed on these dreadful things. Can you imagine Wagner's Ring operas being judged on the synopsis alone? They would certainly be rejected!

jimnduncan said...

As a plotter, I don't find the synoposis process too overwhelming really. They're more of an annoyance or the necessary evil as it were. I have my whole story laid out before me before I actually begin to write, which makes them a fairly straight forward thing to do. I truly feel sorry though for the 'pantsers' who have little more than characters, main conflict, beginning and ending before they start writing. If you are writing off proposal, this would be a nightmare for them. How do you write a synopsis when you aren't even sure exactly how the story is going to go? For some writers, I know that plotting it all out saps some of the creative spark for writing the story. Part of the joy of writing this way is discovering what happens as you go. I imagine a root canal would be a more enjoyable process for these writers.

Jessica, what do you say to your writers who write this way? I'm sure you have a couple of them at least.

J Duncan

Kate Douglas said...

Jimnduncan: I'm a panster, but I've also learned that a synopsis helps me get into touch with my characters, and they're the source of my stories. One trick, coming from a background writing radio commercials, is to tell an imaginary someone what your story is about, with a tape recorder running. I know I can often verbalize a concept before I can write it, and the recording helps capture the voice and tone.

Another thing to remember is that you're not required to write exactly the story that's in your synopsis. Once that synopsis gets the contract, I rarely end up with the same book I proposed. I have yet to have my editor reject a manuscript or even ask for a revision on the final work, though I have had more than one back blurb on a book that has nothing to do with the actual story inside. (I probably drive my editor nuts, but it hasn't stopped her from asking for more stories from me) The main thing is getting that contract with a good proposal/synopsis. The fact the story deviates from the original, as long as it's a good story, is not as big an issue as getting a foot in the door.

persistentdreamer said...

Thanks Jessica, this is VERY useful. I hate writing synopses, too, but I discovered something when I tried to write one for a novel I'd recently completed: there was something wrong that I hadn't seen before. The same became clear even as I wrote the query. I'm now rewriting (to call it a revision would be misleading b/c I'm changing the setting, the POV character and the mystery "puzzle" (while keeping many of the secondary characters, including the victim). I haven't really gotten a strong start yet, but I keep in mind as I go how I'd describe the book in a query letter and synopsis, and I believe it's helping me.

Inkpot said...

Thank you for this post. As it happens I am just about to write a synopsis. This post couldn't have come at a better time for me. I feel inspired to write a killer synopsis now. The comments were very helpful too. I particularly like Kate's advice to record how you would tell your book's plot to a friend. I think I'm going to use that. Anyway, cheers everyone.

Anonymous said...

to j duncan:
Unless I misunderstand you, I think you're referring to the sort of synopsis or outline someone would use before they write a novel, and Jessica is referring to one you'd write after the novel's completed.
As for your knowing your plot before you start writing, I truly envy you. I've never been able to have much of my story in mind before I begin (I write mysteries, cozies, so there's a built-in aid, that the basic story will be about my sleuth solving a murder. I'll know who was murdered and why, and I always make sure I know how my amateur sleuth will be able to solve the murder, but apart from that, I'm usually coming up with things as I go.
I would be interested in Jessica's comments re the two approaches, too.

Anonymous said...

So surprise endings are no good? I have always liked books that didn't necessarily end up where I thought they were going. If that happens how do you show it coming in a short little blurb?

Kristan said...

Thanks for the tips. And frankly, I'd LOVE to be at a point in my career where I could sell on synopsis/proposal, haha.

H. L. Dyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen Dante said...

I'm more of a pantser, but with my last proposal, I found that writing the synopsis helped me identify the inner conflicts of my main characters. Knowing those helped me strengthen the chapters for the proposal.

Wes said...

Thank you. This is very helpful.

PurpleClover said...

Wow. My understanding of a "true" synopsis fell way short.

Thanks for the info!

beth said...

Any chance you could show us some synopses that worked? Or would you be willing to analyze a few (literally a few) of ours for us to see some examples?

Devon Ellington said...

Would you say outlines are going out of fashion? When I prepare a manuscript for submission, I generally set my logline and one paragraph hook first, then do the outline, hone that, and then pull the synopsis from the outline. Basically, that way, whatever someone requests can go out in the return mail.

But I've noticed that more people want a synopsis rather than an outline over the past year or so.

Devon Ellington said...

PS -- I do all those materials AFTER the manuscript is polished, but BEFORE I start the submission process. Not at the point where I'm selling on the strength of the synopsis -- Yet! ;)

Michael said...

I used to find the synopsis writing process painful, mostly because I tend to go on and on and end up with 50 pages, but then I came up with a system that works well for me. I'll share it here, in case it can help others.

1. Start with a bullet list of the things that happen in the novel that are important to the plot and set up. Write this list tersely and in your own language—it's for you, no one else.
2. Go through the list and get rid of whatever is not essential. Do this twice, because getting rid of one nonessential item may allow you to get rid of others. Despite the fact that you set out to only include essential items, if you’re at all like me, you will find much to trim here.
3. When you have this list down to as few items as possible, use the list as a guide to write the synopsis, using one sentence per line if you can.
4. Go through the completed synopsis several times and once again trim all the unnecessary fat you managed to inject into it.

By the end of this process, you should have a very short and well written synopsis.

Anonymous said...

Michael,
Thanks!!! What a great approach.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. The Amazon Breakout Novel Award is using proposal's for first round judging - maybe they're just making it more realistic. It certainly made me think about what to put in a synopsis.

Janet said...

Very timely. I started crafting mine just today. Thank you.ssla

Anonymous said...

Very frustrating to spend days, if not weeks, writing the perfect synopsis, sent according to each agent's requirements (some want snail-mail, others want e-mail)--only to get a form rejection. UGH!

LCWright said...

I just want to thank Jessica and everyone else who comment here. So far I am unpublished and attempting to break out with my work. Your comments have been enlightening. The thing that intrigues me the most is what it takes to stand out from the rest. Every aspect of the process requires dilligence. Merely writing a great (at least I hope great) manuscript is not the end of the job. It's actually just the beginning. Thanks for the lessions.

Kathryn Magendie said...

I had so many different versions of my synopsis, it wasn't even funny. And yes, I detest them. I hope I never have to write another one! Oh! wouldn't that be grand - if my synopsis-writing days are over....

I was told by the beautiful Alexandra Sokoloff that I was by far the worst synopses writer she'd ever met *laughing* - she said, "how can you write such beautiful prose, and your synopsis is so ... so ... ugh-ly..." *laugh* true, sadly true.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for breaching this subject. Your comments on selling on a proposal raises another question for me. It seems that 3 or more book deals are not uncommon. My question is, in your experience, do your clients have all three books written in order to get these deals, or can you sell one completed manuscript and the other two just on proposal?

Thanks for your time!

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Devious said...

Hi there - I am curious about the synopsis part. Do we include spoilers (including the ending and how the characters solve their conflicts) in our synopsis because I have seen some queries with just a brief synopsis.

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Cherie Henderson said...

Perfect timing! I just sent my full MS to my critique group, so I've spent the last few days polishing my query and am now settling in for the dreaded synopsis task.

Many thanks for the post! Also, thanks to Michael for your tips.

Away we go...

Kim Wedlock said...

With synopsises, do you need to include even the surprises? I'm in the process of putting mine together for my fantasy book, but I don't know if I'm supposed to mention the "surprise, he's affected by black magic!" or "This person dies as well" - obviously better written than that, but in my mind that's how it comes across. Do agents want to know even the details that are supposed to surprise the reader, if they're relevant to the plot?

And how would you write a synopsis for the first book of a trilogy? I'm not sure if I should be giving out the entire story across the three books, or if I should limit it to the first. Obivously each book needs to tie off most of the loose ends even if it's book one of a trilogy, so that at the end of the book, you're clear on where the characters are focusing their attention in the next book. But do I tell the entire story? I am only submitting the first book, after all.

Thanks so much for this blog, it's so unbelievably helpful.