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The Dreaded Synopsis: A Few Tips

The Dreaded Synopsis: A Few Tips

Synopsis. The mere mention of the word cues the impulse to run and hide or, at least, defer facing the synoptic music. Yet, there’s no getting away from the reality that a synopsis of your novel is an integral part of any submission and, along with a query and sample pages, is all an agent or publisher will have to judge your work. So, do NOT give the dreaded synopsis short shrift. View it, instead, as an opportunity to showcase how unique and compelling your story is, and how distinctive your voice.

The word “synopsis” is defined as a condensed statement or outline, or a brief summary. It is derived from the Greek “syn” meaning together, and “opsis” meaning sight or appearance. “Nice to know,” you say. But what help is etymology when I’m faced with reducing hundreds of my tear-stained pages to one or two?

What do do?

First—do not panic. You are the master of your story. True. For one of the few times in life you may have too much information. It can seem overwhelming, so focus on the basics and what makes your work one of a kind.

Second—synopses, like query letters, must do two things—conform to agent/publisher expectations and requirements, and cast your story in the best light possible.

  • Content Tips:
    • Identify who your protagonist is and what the protagonist’s problem(s) and motivations are.
    • Define the major plot points—inciting incident; rising tension; climax; resolution.
    • Setting—situate the reader in space and time, meaning no untethered, ethereal allusions. As with action, you might think obfuscating setting will ramp up the suspense/mystery. All it does is confuse the weary agent/publisher who is likely reading your synopsis on the train/bus on a phone on the way to work— which, by the way, is one reason why they ask for synopses to be pasted into emails not sent as attachments.
    • Stakes—Why should the reader take this journey with the protagonist? What is the conflict? What does the protagonist want? What are barriers to the protagonist’s success?
    • Display the full narrative arc of your story, spoilers included. No hiding the ball. Include other key characters (antagonist, sidekicks, etc.), but not every last face in the crowd, just the ones who are needed to understand what’s going on.
    • How are major conflict(s) resolved?
    • Display full character(s) arcs (positive, negative, flat). How has the protagonist changed by the end?
  • Form Tips:
    • Rule #1—follow the submission guidelines as to word count (and content, if given).
    • Use third-person present tense.
    • Use the active voice and clear, declarative language; avoid vagueness and wordiness; use your word count wisely!
    • Major plot points only. Avoid including every single character and plot twist/event.
    • No editorial comments, such as, “in a riveting turn of events.” Let your story stand on its own merits.
    • Ensure your distinctive voice shines through. Even though synopses tend to be dry, do not lose the tone of the work in your effort to get out “just the facts.” Agents and publishers take on books because they stand out from the crowd. So, don’t forget the unique characters, plot points, and setting/world-building you put so much effort into creating.
    • Ditch the backstory. Story is not backstory. To the extent any backstory is critical to understanding the conflict/stakes, keep it to a bare minimum.
    • Avoid dissertations on theme and story structure; they are fine for cocktail party conversations but not for synopses.
    • Synopses are no place for poetic language or a time for lengthy descriptions/explanations.
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Exactly when you tackle the synopsis may relate to whether you are a pantser or a plotter. The latter, extensive outline in hand, may have the thing wrapped up before word one of the manuscript is done. (Cue green with envy emoji.) Pansters, however, may also benefit from giving thought to a synopsis, even if only in note form, early in the writing process. This may, in turn, help with the progression of the story on the page (at least until its trajectory changes as they so often do when characters take on lives of their own). Or, for many of us, the synopsis may be the last thing we do before pressing “submit.”

Wherever in the process, you focus on this nitty-gritty, step-by-step analysis of your tale, keep in mind that the purpose of a synopsis is to summarize, yes, but also to intrigue. Like readers, agents and publishers fall victim to temptation. It is your unique tale and voice that will incite them to tumble into your rabbit hole and request a full manuscript.

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