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Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 by Joe Nassise
The Dreaded “S” Word – the Synopsis

Last week I talked about establishing the premise of your novel.  That discussion generated some excellent comments and not a few questions about how to turn your premise into a full fledged storyline, so this week I wanted to talk about the dreaded “S” word.

You know the one I’m talking about.

Synopsis.

–Shudder–

I know so many writers who hate writing a synopsis and I’ve never been able to understand why.  After all, it is your ticket to publication.  A good synopsis will get an editor or agent excited about reading your book and that’s the first step to getting an acceptance.

So, this week we are going to dissect the synopsis, understand what it is used for, and give you some tips to write your own.

In the simplest of terms, a synopsis is a present tense summation of the key events in your story. (Present tense because it creates a feeling of immediacy and excitement.) It allows the editor or agent reading the synopsis to get a snapshot understanding of what happens to whom and why.  Structurally it must present the book’s plot, theme, and characters.  Stylistically it must package the characters, dramatic events, and plot together in such a way as to serve as a preview of the entire book.

Easy, right? 

(Sure, they say, doubt hanging on every letter.)

There are as many different ways to write a synopsis as there are books on the shelf.  I’ve found one that works for me and I’ve stuck to it ever since.  I’m going to share that with you today, but understand, this certainly isn’t the only way of doing this.  (In fact, I’d love to hear how others do it too!)

Every synopsis I write contains certain essential elements.  These are:

  • Theme
  • Setting and Time Period
  • Plot Summary
  • Character sketches
  • Emotional Turning Points

(I might occasionally throw in Dialogue as well, but it is rather infrequent so I didn’t include it in my primary list.)

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Theme:

Theme is an often overlooked element of many book proposals.  I find it lets an editor know immediately that you are aware of the potential undercurrents of your own work and that you want your story to impart something to the audience besides entertainment.   Convey your theme in one sentence or phrase – be as concise as possible.  My debut novel RIVERWATCH told the story of a gargoyle-like creature terrorizing a small New England town.  The theme, however, focused on the idea of sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds.  The three novels in the Templar Chronicles trilogy focus on the exploits of a combat team that works for the Vatican.  The theme deals with how one man handles a confrontation with the infernal and, by extension, the divine as well.

Setting and Time Period:

You want your editor to know exactly where and when your story takes place before they get too deep into the plot summary.  I usually do this in a simple opening statement.  Something along the lines of “EYES TO SEE is a modern urban fantasy set in New York City”  or “IN THE SHADOWS OF MADNESS is a historical thriller set just before the fall of Berlin in 1945″ – you get the idea.  The default is usually a current time period and setting, so if you do not specify either one this is what the editor is most likely to assume.

Plot Summary:

Obviously the plot summary is the heart of your synopsis.  What most beginning writers fail to realize is that you must summarize the beginning, middle, and the end of the story.  You don’t want to frustrate the editor or agent reading your proposal with leaving only a teaser ending to your synopsis.  “Will the Ghostbusters escape from the clutches of the evil Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?  Request the full manuscript to find out!” is a big mistake.

You want the editor to walk away from your synopsis with the sense that you not only know where the story is going, but that also you know why it is going there and you understand the actual route it takes along the way.  You want to show that the actions of the characters are grounded in their motivations and are a natural result of the situations they find themselves in, rather than a forced chain of events that result because the writer needs it to happen that way.

I take care to highlight the inciting incident that sends the hero on his way, the attempts and failures he undergoes to reach his goal, and the final climax of the story.  In other words, highlight the problem, the conflict, and the resolution of your tale.  I do not go into every little subplot or minor character because I want to maintain the editor’s interest and don’t want to make the story seem convoluted or confusing.

Character Sketches:

Because I now include these as a separate standalone element in my novel proposals, I have recently stopped adding them into each synopsis I write.  In the past I would include them so that the editor would understand that I recognize the unique elements of each character and could show that their motivations were true to the actions they take in the story.

Emotional Turning Points:

Every novel is full of tens if not hundreds of little scenes that drive the story forward but that can’t stand alone as major elements.  They do, however, contribute to a growing crescendo of emotion that culminates in a major scene that impacts the story in such as way as to be indispensible – in other words, it would be a different story without those elements.  Including the emotional turning points in your synopsis is vital.  In effect, your synopsis should almost leapfrog from one emotional turning point to another.

A Thought on Subplots:

The only time I include subplots in my synopsis is when they are intrinsically involved with the primary plot.  Otherwise, I leave them out so as to avoid muddy up the waters and pushing myself into a rejection.  If I can tell the primary storyline clearly, I have a stronger chance of having the book accepted than if I got the editor confused with six different subplots that aren’t vital at this stage of the game.

There you have it – my formula for a decent synopsis.  So how do you approach writing a synopsis?  What works for you?  What doesn’t?  For those of you still shying away from writing one for each of your projects, where is it that you are having trouble?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!