Tips for Writing a Great Synopsis
I've never met a writer who enjoys writing a synopsis. In fact, I've heard many say it is THE worst part of the writing and publishing business. That said, it is a necessary chore. Literary agents and publishers demand them so they get a thorough grasp of the novel. But, this post isn't just about getting a synopsis ready for submission. The purpose of a synopsis has to be your chance to review the structure of your novel - even before you've completed your final draft! Shocking eh? Well, I'll come back to that point in a while. Let's clarify what a good synopsis should be first of all.
The Format for a Synopsis
There are lots of sources available for this purpose but I've chosen to use Anna Davis' model. Anna is CEO of the literary agent-led Curtis Brown Creative writing school. Her article is here. I'm an alumnus and I rate Anna's courses very highly, the process made a world of difference to my writing. Anyway, as an agent herself, here are Anna's format suggestions:
Start with the novel's title and its genre.
Near the start include your Pitch Line - this is usually the key question, dilemma or driving force of the novel. It should be no more than one sentence. It's the line that agents use to get publisher's attention. It's how you get the reader's attention. It's the hook.
Summarise the plot - the main beats of the story. These are those moments where events hinge on what's gone before and what follows next. (I'm going to come back to this later.) Include the ending. It is a crucial part of the plot and (potentially) sales of the book. Ignore chapters, this is an over-arcing summary.
Identify your protagonist and their motivations and goals. (Don't include other characters unless they impact on the events in significant ways.)
Establish the setting. Where and when is the story set? Only include significant features that are crucial to the plot.
Describe the tone of the novel briefly.
Other minor points: Don't praise your work by including what so-and-so said about it. Include a quote from the novel only if it provides a pertinent plot point. Write in the third person, (it generates objectivity) and in the present tense. Keep sentences short and punchy. It can be single-spaced.
The synopsis accompanies the Pitch Letter and is not the Blurb. It is frequently a page long - and must not look like every word is crammed onto that page! Some agents may want different lengths. Anna (and others) suggest it's worth having two or three synopses of different length. A challenge, yes! But a worthwhile exercise for the reasons I'm about to cover.
Expanding on the Plot Points
My third bullet point is the killer, isn't it? Summarise the plot. How? What is involved? I've broken this process down further:
Identify the starting point. Where do we find out protagonist? What is their goal and what frustrations will thwart them in achieving it?
What is the Inciting Incident? The event which kickstarts the action, propels them forward through the plot. It may be the result of something the antagonist does.
Identify the Rising Action - events leading up to the climax. These are the "beats" that propel the story forward, the driving forces. (I'll come back to this concept).
Define the Climax. This needs to establish the satisfaction readers will experience as events reach fruition. Readers want to be satisfied, the climax is vital to this outcome. It will affect sales.
Describe the Resolution. How does the story end? How do the climactic events impact on the protagonist (and others)?
Include any original elements. It may be your Voice (a quote helps here), or a plot twist. If the premise of the story is unusual, highlight it.
You'll notice I've referenced technical terms that define the narrative structure of a novel here. This helps to focus your thinking on the key elements of the narrative and separates you from just telling the story in a really short way! Try writing each section on its own and then put them together, once each section is made to work on its own. They're not all equal length! (The Starting Point and Resolution may be brief!).
It's tempting to squash your narrative arc into the synopsis and, consequently, spoil the quality of the writing. Some agents read the synopsis first. Don't leave them thinking you can't write! Here are some tips:
Find Clarity - make sure everything is crystal clea to the reader. Here, you turn the old writing adage on its head - Tell, don't show! Brevity is vital but it's easy to omit crucial grammar or detail that tells the reader vital information. Read, re-read and re-read again.
Avoid excess - keep sentences simple. Avoid subordinate clauses and run-on sentences (where you say too much in one go). Every word needs a purpose. Challenge those words!
Maintain Flow - the synopsis needs to be easy to read. One topic flows into the next. It should be pleasurable to read. By editing out unnecessary material, the result might lead to jerky writing!
Find Objectivity - share the synopsis with others (who will be critical!) and give them these points as their guide. Have you hit them all? Can they make sense of it? Does it capture their interest?
It's tempting to achieve that 500 word limit and clap your hands, knowing your've succeeded. You haven't. You need to ensure the quality of your synopsis matches the quality of your story.
The Other Reason for Writing a Synopsis
I opened by talking about the synopsis acting as a review mechanism. I said you could write the synopsis before completing your final draft of your story. By writing your synopsis at this point, you can evaluate whether you have a strong, intriguing beginning, an engaging middle, and a satisfying ending.
Your evaluation process can assess the strength of the narrative arc. Are your plot twists genuinely surprising? Have you found plot holes? Or unmotivated characters? Are there sections in the story that are just plain boring? Once you've evaluated your synopsis, you can fix those problems before completing your next draft.
Your synopsis needs to demonstrate the IMPACT of the events in the plot. We're talking Cause and Effect.
So, what else should you look for to achieve this goal? The answer is this - a plot should be driven by consequence. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated TV series South Park, provide a good definition of this concept. To quote them, in a presentation to NYU students:
Trey Parker: …and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re [in trouble]. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘OK, this happens’ right? And then this happens.’ No, no, no. It should be ‘This happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’ Matt Stone: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.
Let me illustrate by applying two versions of a story:
A: Peter discovers his friend, Reggie, is a vampire however he doesn't know how to tell Reggie that he's aware of his secret. When Reggie is trapped outside on a sunny day, Peter tries to save him, the trouble is he hasn't got Reggie's umbrella that he uses to stay in the shade. Peter throws his coat over Reggie in an act of desperation. Reggie realises Peter knows he's a vampire and that his secret is out.
B: Peter's friend, Reggie, is secretly a vampire. Peter saves Reggie's life because his quick thinking stops Reggie from being fried when they're caught outside in the sunshine. Therefore Reggie realises Peter knows his secret.
You'll notice how B provides consequences for each statement. Consequences which drive the plot. Example A has too many 'and then' elements which negate the driving forces. A great synopsis deals with the impact of events in the story, that is why they are there. If they don't have that impact, they shouldn't be included. There must be clear evidence of this Cause and Effect process. Or, if you like, "But-Therefore-Because" process.
The synopsis should provide a sequence of events where cause follows through to the effect. Each action or choice leads to a specific consequence EVERY TIME. It ensures the synopsis has real impact and the narrative arc is filled with action. Therefore, (see what I did there?) you're more likely to finish up with a story which sustains your reader's attention from beginning to end. That works for you as the author. Unsurprisingly, it's also what the agent and publisher are looking for. A win-win situation.
Don't think of writing a synopsis as a chore.
Use it as an editing strategy!