February 7th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
The Dreaded Synopsis

I want to talk about how to write a synopsis, but I also want to try an experiment.  This is one of those topics that I see discussed far and wide, with a lot of anxiety.  Writers will approach their novels with a sense of joy and accomplishment, but when it comes time to write the synopsis, dread sets in.  They’ll spend as much time and stress on the three-to-five page summary of their story as they did the four hundred page story.  Before I start talking about synopses — what they need to accomplish, and how I approach writing them — I want to ask you all:  What is it about the synopsis that scares you, frustrates you, makes you pull your hair out?  What kind of advice are you looking for?

Here are my current thoughts on the subject:

Stop thinking of it as the dreaded synopsis.  You’ll psyche yourself out.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m cheating, because I haven’t written too many of these, and I don’t know how important any of them were to actually selling any of my books.  When I get some time I want to see if I can find the one I wrote for Kitty and The Midnight Hour, but it’s on a different computer and backup disk, so it’ll take a little while to dig it up.  If folks are interested, I can look for a synopsis I wrote for an actual published book and post it next week.

If the synopsis is for a book that isn’t finished yet — as it usually is when shopping proposals for subsequent books in a series — don’t sweat the details.  No one is going to get upset if the final book doesn’t happen exactly the way the synopsis says it does.  When pitching subsequent Kitty novels, I usually write a one to two page summary of what I’d like the book to be about, to give the editor an idea of what I’m thinking.  In the end, the two don’t always totally resemble each other.  And that’s okay.

The synopsis isn’t supposed to be a description of everything that happens in the book.  It only needs to get across a few pieces of information:  Who’s the protagonist?  What’s the conflict?  What’s the arc of the story? (The synopsis should include an ending.)  What’s the tone of the story?  Why should a reader care?

And it’s just like writing the book — show, don’t tell.  You don’t need answer those questions explicitly, but an editor should have a good idea what those answers are after reading the synopsis.

The synopsis is a sales tool, and that’s it.  It’s not being graded as a piece of art in its own right.  It needs to get across a lot of information in a short amount of space, in a way that makes someone want to read the book.

Start with a one-paragraph summary that you might use for your query letter.   You get one paragraph to convince an editor or agent to look at your book.  How do you do that?  Well, how do publishers do it?  They put a paragraph on the cover to convince the reader to buy the book.  You can do the same thing:  here’s your chance to write your own cover blurb.  What are the three or four most important things about the story?

Once you’ve got that cover blurb, expand it.  Who’s the main character?  Who are the most important secondary characters?  What’s the primary conflict/mission?  What’s the tone and style and purpose of the story?  Write in that style.  Use that voice.

Write practice synopses of your favorite books and movies, making them as streamlined and punchy as possible.  You may be too close to your own novel to be able to do this well, but learning how to do it on someone else’s work may help you gain some objectivity with your own.

Is any of this helpful?  What else would you like to talk about?  What problems have you had?  What have you tried that’s worked?   Should I post a synopsis next week?

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5 comments to “The Dreaded Synopsis”

  1. Rebecca
     · February 7th, 2011 at 7:09 pm · Link

    I’m unpublished, btw, shopping a fantasy novel to agents, so this is a timely topic for me! :) As for the dread, well — it’s like being graded for an entire year (or many years!) of effort based on that handful of paragraphs. Of course it’s stressful.

    I for one worry that I’m not hitting the right things – leaving too much out for anyone but me to follow the plot, or leaving too much in and making it too long and dull. Examples of the expected degree of depth would be great.

    Everyone seems to want a different *type* of synopsis. Some want one page, some are okay with several pages, some want a chapter-by-chapter. That last is the type I find the most frustrating, because you do have to include pretty much everything that happens, but it’s hard to convey flavor as well as plot without making it way too long. Exhausting and painful to write. That is, however, how I got to the one-page synopsis I have right now, which I actually don’t hate. I wrote a few sentences about every chapter, and then sliced them away until I had just the core of the story, which I rearranged to be topical rather than strictly chronological. Kind of going the long way around!

    I think the idea of trying it on other works is a good suggestion; practice makes perfect.

  2. Suzan H.
     · February 7th, 2011 at 11:39 pm · Link

    “Synopses must be practiced just like any other type of writing.”

    At least, that’s what my mentors keep telling me. But then Obi-wan and Yoda might be at the bar of the little Mexican restaurant down the street laughing the asses off at my naivete’.

    Seriously though, I’d love to see a synopsis from someone who’s got some books under her belt. It helps me to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

  3. Sasha White
     · February 8th, 2011 at 1:07 am · Link

    I’ve written very few synopsis’, but I agree with you. The key is to not think of it as such a big deal. Like a novel you can have many drafts of a synopsis, and you can edit it, but first you have to actually write it. :)

    That said I I have been known to get a bit worked up when trying to write one. 😳 What makes me panic is when I start to think to o much about it as plotting. Plotting make me panic. The way I get through it to simply remind myself that I’ve never had an editor get mad because the end novel didn’t resemble the synopsis I’d submitted.

  4. Elizabeth Currie
     · February 9th, 2011 at 4:51 pm · Link

    This is useful. I have written two full length novels – one an historical saga and the other a modern romance – and have yet to find publishers, or agents for either. I find writing synopses excruciating. However compelling the original narrative, by the time I have reduced it into the cage of a synopses I have killed it! Clearly I need a different approach and hopefully by applying some of these tips I may be able to preserve more of the spirit and integrity of the original work!

  5. Carrie Vaughn
     · February 10th, 2011 at 12:39 pm · Link

    I’ll see if I can dig up that synopsis and post it.

    I do think synopses should reflect the tone and spirit of the book, rather than being a “blow by blow” description.

    I also think that the book is still the most important thing… I’m going to ask my agent next time I talk to him how he feels.

    Thanks for the comments!

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