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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Synopsis - Bane of a Writer's Existence

Not  long ago I posted about the pitch and it's importance in selling a story. I also mentioned the difficulty in compressing an entire novel into roughly 300 words. Story lines are missed, characters are left out and you feel like you could get an agent/publisher/reader's attention if you could only have more space and time. Too bad we can't all be Time Lords.

A lot in a little package

There is good news. If you manage to catch an agent's attention with the pitch or query, they may ask for more material. Often the next step includes an excerpt (or partial) and a synopsis. The excerpt won't be an issue - it's the first couple chapters from the book you're dying to get into their hands in the first place. But what the heck is the synopsis? Remember the trouble you had with your pitch? You're going to wish you were still on that step.

The synopsis is an overview of your WHOLE novel. I know you're excited, thinking this is exactly what you wanted in the first place. There's no way they won't love your novel now they can see everything. You sit down to the keyboard and realize something. Your novel is somewhere in the ballpark of 60,000-100,000 words. You now get to condense ALL of it into one to two pages. No picking which characters you feel are more important or which story arcs should be included. Everything in the novel has to be included.

Once you get through the shock of how much work is now ahead of you, you come to a sad conclusion: this is going to be as boring as school reports. You won't have room for embellishing your writing or adding any of your 'voice' to it. There just isn't enough space. This part is for facts and facts only.

I know you're saying, "But, there must be some way to make this interesting! The agent I managed to snag after all this time will fall asleep two paragraphs into this drivel." I agree. Here's how I manage to get through mine.

When I received my first request for a synopsis, I panicked. While I thought about how to approach it, my son asked me to read him a story. I obliged with a Little Golden Books version of 'Finding Nemo.' While I read it, I came to a strange conclusion: this was a synopsis. It had some embellishments, but everything was boiled down to it's basic elements.

But I don't have time to tell you all about him now.

So, here's my advice: Take your novel chapter by chapter and explain each one in a paragraph or so. Write it as though you're explaining the action to a small child, not an older reader or adult. Before you know it, you'll have all those complicated twists and turns written out as 'FISH escapes and goes home. THE END.'


  1. One trick I do with the Pitch and Synopsis is to write them before I write the book, as at that stage you should have a rough idea of the story, without all the details getting in the way. When you have finished the book you can then go back and refine them according to any changes in the book. If the Pitch and Synopsis initially sound rubbish then the idea might need work before writing the whole book.

    1. That works for plotters. Not so much for us pantsers. ;-) But it is definitely another great way to tackle the synopsis (and pitch) if you can write that way.

    2. Yeah but even a pantser must have a vague plan of what they are going to be doing in their head. And the synopses will probably change as you write the book, but it does give you an taste of if the idea is any good. I never like to have the whole book planned out before starting as there is no point then going on the journey if you know all the details :(

  2. I'm currently working on the one-paragraph-per-chapter idea for my synopsis. Unfortunately, I have thirty chapters (plus an epilogue) and some of my paragraphs are a bit longish, so I still have my work cut out for me once I'm finished with it. I'm hoping, though, that once I get it all done, it will be easier to see where I need to cut things to get my synopsis down to a manageable length.

    I started writing with a very short, roughed-out synopsis that got partially chucked out the window in the process of writing the book. I think the whole thing was about a page long, but it only encompassed about a fourth of the actual story. That's the closest I've ever come to planning something before sitting down to write it, so I do think Stephen's idea has some merit, even for us pantsers. :)

    1. You can have too much planning. I once worked out a very detailed plan for a book, but then when I was going to write it I didn't bother as I already knew everything that was going to happen, so where was the fun for me then.

      I like to think of the plan as a rough road map with these various stops planned out on the journey. What happens in these stops is something I only really discover when I get to them in the writing :)

    2. This is the same issue I have anytime I try to plot it out ahead of time.

    3. It is a balance getting it right. You want the sign posts to tell you where you are going but the fun of discovering the place when you get there. Flowcharts are good for that :)

    4. The balance is where I run into problems. The closest I get to having sign posts is when I have to stop writing in the middle of a scene and I leave myself a note so that I remember what my train of thought was. :)