Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tackling the Dreaded Synopsis - Part One

Here's an increasingly common scenario. An agent has had your partial or full manuscript for several weeks, and you finally get a long-awaited email from her. Your heart pounding, you open the email. "Can you please send me a synopsis?" she asks.

Or you just found out about a contest you know you want to enter. The contest judges will be deciding which entries move on to the agent round based on a query letter, the first page/chapter of the manuscript... and a synopsis. The entry deadline is tomorrow. Your query letter and the manuscript itself are word-perfect, edited, beta-read, and revised. But can you write a great synopsis in 24 hours?

In this post, we'll discuss what a synopsis is (and isn't), how synopses are used by agents and authors, and the basic requirements for writing a good one.

Next week, we'll go through the mechanics of synopsis writing, and I'll post an example of a synopsis that works.

After that, I'll be critiquing your synopses - we'll add a form to next week's post so you can submit!

What is a synopsis? A synopsis is a summary of your manuscript's plot. It details the entire main plot arc (including the ending) and also mentions the most important subplots and characters. It doesn't include many character or setting details, and also doesn't include dialogue, metaphors, or detailed descriptions. Think of it as the blueprint for a house. You don't need to show the tablecloths and chandeliers, but you'd better make sure the dimensions of all the rooms are accurately represented.

Why does everyone hate writing synopses so much? Because it's hard! You've spent months (maybe years) writing your book, weighing every word, stressing over character arcs, settings, and plot points. Now you have to condense tens of thousands of words into a couple of pages? It's definitely daunting, but it's doable.

How is it different from a query letter? I like to think of a query letter as 'teasing your story' and the synopsis as 'telling your story.' It may not sound like a huge difference, but think about it: With the query, you want to say just enough to entice an agent, to excite her so much about your story that she just has to request pages. You don't want to give away the ending in a query - you want to end on an uncertain note, a cliffhanger, with the action or decision your main character will have to choose. You want to hook the agent, but you don't want to reel her in. On the other hand, with the synopsis, you're reeling her in by telling the entire story.

Why do agents and contest judges want synopses? An agent might be reading your full manuscript, but also have 100 other fulls to read. If she starts reading and knows right away she likes your voice, your writing, your characters, and the concept, she may request a synopsis so she can get a 'cheat sheet' for the plot without having to read the entire manuscript. It's a way for her to confirm the plot isn't going to go off the rails in the middle or end of the manuscript, and that you can sustain momentum throughout the book. Same with contest judges - they often have hundreds of entries to pore over. A synopsis helps cut way down on reading time.

How long does it have to be? The most common requests seem to be 'no more than two pages' and 'no more than five pages.' I've always started by writing a five-page synopsis, and then cut it down to two pages. The opposite works just as well. Once you've got both, you're ready to go, and can comply with a request for either a short or long synopsis.

What formatting should I use? Use the same font/size as your manuscript (12-point Times New Roman, etc.). For the five-page synopsis, double-space and indent paragraphs. For the two-page synopsis, you can single space and add a space between paragraphs instead of indenting.

What parts of my manuscript do I need to cover? All of it! Well, okay, that's not exactly true. You need to set the scene, introduce your main character, and run through the entire main plot. All of the significant events (and characters) from the main plot need to be included. Subplots and secondary characters can be included if they are directly relevant to the main plot. And you MUST give away the ending.

How many characters can I name? Rule of thumb is no more than 5. More than that, and it starts getting difficult for the reader to keep track. For all other characters, you can refer to them using their relationship to the main character (for example, John's brother, Mary's teacher, etc.).

Do I need comps, word count, genre, a bio, etc.? Nope. Save those for the query.

Does the writing have to be stellar? Why not? This is another opportunity to show the agent or contest judge that you've got the chops. Write your synopsis like you're answering the question, "What happens in your story?" You want that answer to be colorful, intriguing, and complete, and for it to showcase your writing abilities.

My book has a great twist at the end. I can't possibly give it away? Too bad. If an agent has requested a synopsis, then he wants to know how the plot of your book progresses, and that necessarily includes the ending.

When should I write my synopsis? I usually write my synopsis when I'm about halfway through the first draft of my manuscript (note: I do create broad outlines before I start writing, so if you're a pantser, you might prefer to wait until the first draft is done). Writing a synopsis while I'm writing the book lets me know whether the plot is working. Is there a clear through-line for the main plot? What's missing to connect Points A, B, and C? Does a character appear in the first chapter of the book and then isn't heard from again until the 50% mark? A synopsis helps you see the forest for the trees - you can make sure your main plot is working while you're writing the draft. Besides, after you're done editing the manuscript and sweating over the query letter, it's nice to know you've already got a draft synopsis waiting in the wings!

Got questions about the 'Tackling the Dreaded Synopsis' series? Feel free to ask, or start a discussion, in the comments. And tune in next week for more on the mechanics of synopsis writing, a sample synopsis of a novel 99% of you will be familiar with, and the official call for submissions!


Tracey said...

Great post! As a pantser, I've learned to wait until the end of the first draft to write the synopsis. The blood, sweat and tears (I might be embellishing the sweat part) involved in writing and revising one synopsis is plenty.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Tracey! Yeah, for pantsers, waiting until the first draft is complete makes a lot of sense.