These days, I usually I write craft posts over at the All The Kissing blog but I know a lot of people who are nervous (politely put) if not outright panicking about writing a synopsis. I’m going to try to help get those of you all flustered about synopses to a point where you can breathe, say aha!, and get that synopsis to reflect your story the way you want.
At its heart a synopsis is nothing more than a marketing tool, but there are a few things we need to remember about them.
1. Don’t be stingy with plot details.
Why? The synopsis is a short description of your book, not a short description of your hook.
A common mistake I see in first-time synopsis writers is that they don’t want to include the big reveals. You have to include the spoilers. The whole point of the synopsis is to give the reader an idea of the important things that happen in a story. So instead of saying “And if Mardina doesn’t tell Alaric about her big secret, their future will be in jeopardy,” we need to know what you’re referencing. “If Mardina doesn’t tell Alaric she’s got a two-year-old child with death-by-staring powers, he’ll never forgive her once he uncovers the truth. But if she does tell him, that knowledge will tie them both to the planet, demolishing Alaric’s dream of exploring the nebula.” (I kind of like where this is going. Plot bunny for the taking, anyone?)
2. Take a tip from the world of screenwriting.
Why? The intricacies of the story belong in the book narrative, not the synopsis. Often, your synopsis will be used by an industry professional to help gauge their interest, or to ensure that you’re representing the genre correctly, before they read your pages.
In drama shows, many episodes have two discrete yet complementary plots. The main one is referred to as the “A” plot, and the minor one is the “B” plot. While the “B” plot is often fascinating, it isn’t the sole or main focus of the episode. Make sure that your synopsis focuses on the “A” (main) plot of your story. As tempting as it is to weave all the intertwining sub-plots into the synopsis, we need to chop mercilessly. The gist of the story needs to be there, but without all the detail.
3. Use names sparingly.
Why? Ease of reading. Ease of remembering. Ease of understanding who’s where when, and which characters are most important.
Pick a handful of your most important characters—two or three, no more—to refer to by name. All the rest can be referred to by description (“the roommate” or “her father” or “the Imperial Juggernaut”). When you’re including characters in your synopsis, ask yourself if they’re part of the “A” storyline or the “B” storyline. If the answer is “B,” it’s best to leave them out.
Tip: current synopsis style favors capitalizing the first instance of the named characters (“GIOVANNI is first mate on the USS Sinksalot”) and then use regular capitalization rules for the rest of those instances.
4. A simple recipe: pitch, query, synopsis, novel.
Why? Some books present well in queries. Others present better in synopsis form or in pitch form. If you have all these pieces at hand, you’ll always be able to share something that showcases your book beautifully.
Each book needs at least four pieces:
- the novel itself, which is your brilliant labor of love
- the synopsis, which is a short distillation of the novel
- the query letter, which is a short distillation of the synopsis, and
- the pitch, which is a short distillation of the query letter.
Some authors write the novel first and then the supporting pieces. Others start with the pitch or query letter or synopsis. Discussing how to write a synopsis before the novel is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I’ll give you a little hint: you do have some kind of outline, don’t you?
Once you start looking at all the marketing pieces this way, they start to seem a little less daunting. At least they do to me.
5. My favorite synopsis-writing resource
I wouldn’t be able to say much of anything about writing a synopsis without crediting my favorite resource at Pub(lishing) Crawl: How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis. It’s become my go-to for each synopsis I’ve written. I highly recommend this tool, with examples from Star Wars: A New Hope. I find it so flexible, I’ve been able to adapt it to fit all of my books regardless of genre. With a little imagination you’ll be able to see how to adapt it to fit books told from more than one point of view, and still keep your synopsis focused and succinct.