Everyone Hates Writing A Synopsis
And rightfully so. They are the least fun part of writing. I’d rather stand over my printer, begging it to do the one job I bought it for, than write a synopsis.
But they’re required, so I’ve done it. I have a little method, too.
Nowadays, when I write a synopsis, it’s for my agent to share with editors (or if we’re not at the submission stage, to read over while she slowly inhales through her clenched teeth). But a few years ago, when I was searching for agents, I looked at all their different guidelines with dismay. Some wanted a ten-page synopsis. Some wanted five. Some two. A custom synopsis wasn’t something I could just type up. It needed care and time, and I didn’t think I could do artisinal book summaries.
So I decided that I was going to flout the guidelines and create a single synopsis for everyone.
I didn’t make that decision lightly. One of the simplest ways to get rejected is to act like guidelines don’t matter. The agent asks for a query only, no sample pages? Send some anyway! The agent wants the first ten pages of the story? Send the whole book! The agent wants the first three chapters? Send a link to the website where the book has been posted in green text on a black background!
But for those who wanted a synopsis of some kind, I figured there would be flexibility in the length, and I was right. I decided I was only going to write two pages, on the assumption that the more I left out, the fewer reasons people would have to say no. Also, this method isn’t just for authors looking for representation. I still use it to create selling documents for my agent to send to publishers.
Note: this method is designed to work for books with a single protagonist. Using it for multiple protagonists will require some adaptation. I’ll get into more detail at the end.
There are only four steps, and they’re not particularly difficult although they do take a little time. Before I begin, I want to briefly establish what the synopsis is actually for.
Imagine someone sends you a story about a quirky family living in an old house in a charming little town. They’re doing their best to preserve the legacy that the house and the land represents, and there’s a large cast of unique characters, including a Hunky New Arrival who’s making eyes at the eldest daughter.
Then, after two hundred and fifty pages, aliens invade. Can the family (and Hunky) save their home from marauding space robots?
Basically, the synopsis is there to make sure the story doesn’t go off the rails and waste everyone’s time.
So: four steps for a solid single-protagonist synopsis, according to me:
1) Write down three sentences about your protagonist. First, what they’re like when the story starts. Second, what they’re like at the very end. Third, an important midpoint transformation.
The first sentence goes in the middle of page one. (Since it’s a synopsis, the top half of the first page will be taken up by the title, your name, and lots of white space—this two-pager is really only a page and a half.) The second sentence goes at the bottom of page two, the end of the synopsis. The third sentence should appear somewhere near the top of page two.
That establishes the protagonist’s arc and acts as a framework for synopsis as a whole.
2) Write out the events of the book, briefly, to join together those three sentences, but describe everything in terms of how the protagonist feels about them. Rather than write “Bob asks Susan for a divorce.” you’d write “Susan is overjoyed when Bob asks for a divorce.” Describe everything in terms of how they affect the protagonist.
3) Cut back. It really is best to make it short and sweet, if you can. Authors are very close to their work and often think individual plot points have to be included in detail rather than just summarized. After all, that thing with Gandalf and the balrog is crucial, right? Crucial.
The best way to trim back a synopsis is not to look for what’s necessary, it’s to figure out what isn’t. Find the one thing that is least important, and cut that one thing. Don’t look at it holistically, and don’t try to prioritize everything. Just find one thing you feel you should cut, then find one more, then one more.
I do this all the time for myself and my son. If I can’t make a decision between five or six choices, it’s usually easier to pick the least essential than the most.
4) Avoid “icebergs.” An iceberg shows a little of itself above the surface, but suggests something really huge underneath that you can’t see. Also, it can wreck you.
Say there’s a place in your synopsis that reads something like: “Then Colette transformed herself into radio waves to plead for assistance from the EM Parliament of Spongiform Vampires” the reader is going to stop right there and think where the hell did that come from? It’s just a few words on the page, but beneath that sentence is a whole lot of plot, world-building, and exposition that the reader is going to need.
And it’s not just sffnal story elements that will bump a reader; any line that encapsulates large amounts of detail without a setup can do it. The choice becomes a question of whether to cut it (do we really need to know that the protagonist has an uncle who’s a cop?) or set it up elegantly in a previous paragraph (which makes the synopsis longer). I usually find the former is a better choice.
That’s it. Four things.
The last thing to remember is this: there’s a difference between a synopsis you use to sell a book to a publishing professional and one you create for readers. The pros want to be spoiled because of potential alien invasions, so you absolutely should include the ending. Readers want to be intrigued without having the whole book spoiled, so you should only include the setup and the kickoff to the story, with a suggestion of the final stakes.
Taking this advice won’t make writing a synopsis easy, but it does provide concrete steps beyond “describe the book.” As for adapting it to a multi-protagonist story, there are several options: You could put the focus on one character (“The story follows several characters, but the main one is a Mr. Frodo Baggins, a hobbit* from the Shire”). Alternately, you can hang that three sentence structure on something that isn’t a single character: a nation, a war, a heist, whatever.
Curious to see an example of a synopsis that’s aimed at the reader, rather than a publisher? Well just slide your eyes over the image below…
What a gorgeous cover!
And click on this link to see the synopsis for the first book in my new trilogy along with other pertinent information. Kat Richardson called it “Epic Fantasy that reads like a Thriller” and Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review. You can read the sample chapters I’ve posted on my blog.
I’m curious to see how many people read that link and then go on to buy the book.
Good luck with your synopses.
BIO: Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.