Six impossible things

Synopsis, Part II

Most of the positive things to remember about writing a synopsis are hard, because they run counter to everything else one gets told about writing. First among them is this:

  1. A synopsis is the place to tell, not show.

Fiction writers have “show, don’t tell” pounded into their heads so often and so hard that a lot of them can’t bring themselves to “tell” anywhere in a story, even if it would be more effective in context. It absolutely breaks their brains to consider that in a synopsis, “telling” is the preferred way of presenting their story. They’re also told over and over about the power of the “key detail” and the “perfect word.” So they start their synopsis with “Ivy loads a mountain of dirty laundry belonging to herself and her younger siblings into the last three machines at the down-at-heels laundromat on the corner. The load is half done when her cell phone rings and a mysterious, unfamiliar voice warns her that not all is as it seems…” instead of “Twenty-three-year-old Ivy Duncan gets a cell phone message warning her that she is in danger. Ten minutes later, she is nearly shot walking back to her apartment.”

The synopsis is nearly always part of a package, known as a portion-and-outline. That means the editor/agent is getting three actual chapters of your book. Those three chapters are full of “showing;” they will display your lyrical prose style or gritty action; they’ll demonstrate your way with description and dialog; they’ll show your ability to pick the perfect word and get readers hooked on your story. If they don’t…why are they the first three chapters of your book? (Hint: if you find yourself wanting to send the agent/editor chapters 1, 5, and 9 because 5 and 9 have the really cool stuff in them and 2-4 and 6-8 are kind of ho-hum…you need to do some rewriting.) So none of that needs to be in the synopsis.

“Telling” in a synopsis works best if it sticks strictly to stuff that’s actually in the book. “In a touching scene…” is not in the book (unless you’re doing something weird and meta where you start each scene with a label like “exciting action scene” or “boring speeches here”). Describing the scene (“touching” “exciting”) is not the same as describing what happens in the scene. Telling the editor/agent how she/he is supposed to react (ditto, ditto) is not the same as describing how the characters react. Stick to what’s in the story.

The main reason telling is preferred for a synopsis is:

  1. A synopsis needs to be clear.

The editor or agent wants to look at the synopsis and get a sense of the book: Who’s the main character? When and where does the story take place? What’s the goal? Why does the character want that? How do they get it…or not? Yes, that’s the old journalistic Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The editor/agent doesn’t want to be muddling around a laundromat trying to figure out whether the laundry and siblings are important to the story or whether it’s going to be something about the use of those last three machines that turns out to be key. They absolutely do not want a bunch of details that don’t end up being key…not in the synopsis. They want a nice, clear through line, laying out the key plot points in whatever order makes them most comprehensible.

This means that the writer has to know what the plot is. If Ivy Duncan’s main problem is that she’s torn between her duty to raise and protect her younger siblings and her drive to discover the truth about her parents’ death, the synopsis needs to focus on the character, and the siblings and dead parents are far more important to work in than the specifics of the hair-raising action-adventure stuff. If, however, Ivy’s central problem is an action-adventure one, the assassination attempts and car chases take up most of the synopsis and the siblings and parents fade off into the background.

This is because the length of a synopsis is severely limited, compared to the length of a novel. Do the math: If your novel is 100,000 words, and you write a 5 page synopsis, you have to convey the entire story in 1.75% of the words (assuming a standard 350 words per page). You have room for key points, and that’s all. The more subplots and complexities you try to include, the harder it is to keep your summary clear. Clarity is more important. Really.

Also, if you don’t know what the central story problem is, you’re likely to pick “key points” that aren’t key or that misrepresent the novel, leading to an editor rejecting the action-adventure story you wrote because the synopsis led him/her to believe he was getting a character-development story (or vice versa). Finally,

  1. A synopsis is a spoiler.

The synopsis does not end with a cliffhanger unless the story does. “With her youngest brother in the hospital, the discovery of the missing diary means that Ivy must finally make a decision that will change her life” is not the end of the synopsis, because it’s not the end of the story. “Her youngest brother’s injury at last convinces Ivy that her obsessive quest for answers is putting her entire family in danger to little purpose, and she throws the diary into the ocean and returns home a wiser and less self-indulgent person,” on the other hand, tells the editor what happens and why it should be satisfying for the reader.

Being vague about your story’s ending (“…finds a key clue that solves the mystery”) is annoying and doesn’t help the editor make a decision. Editors and agents have seen hundreds – thousands – of blurb-like teasers, and they’re immune. Bored, even. They are far more likely to be intrigued if you tell them what the clever final twist is, because they get a thrill out of seeing an actual new revelation or a well-thought-out-and-presented familiar one.

If you have reached the point where you have sold several novels and are now submitting a portion-and-outline on a partially complete manuscript, you may not know enough about the ending to be specific. In this case, you have no choice but to be vague as regards the details, but you can still say “Ivy finally has to decide whether to continue her obsessive quest or give it up; she chooses to give it up” even if you’re not quite sure how or why Ivy comes to that decision. If you have not yet sold a novel, you have no excuse and no exemption. Your novel should be complete before you start sending it out, therefore you know exactly what happens at the end. Put it in the synopsis with no waffling around.

Writing a good synopsis is hard. Heck, writing a bad synopsis is hard. For me, the simplest way to get to something acceptable (and my agent made me rewrite the last two I sent her, so I’m not that great at it) is to start with the one-to-two-paragraph summary in the query letter and expand it. This is because I have to stick to the central plot problem when I only have one or two paragraphs; if I start with the outline, I tend to drift off into interesting subplots or background that I think is cool and fascinating (and it may be, but it takes up too much room in a plot outline). I also find it necessary to go over every synopsis several times, because dammit I’m a novelist and I always try to put in stray details and subplots and stuff that doesn’t fit. Even when I’m expanding two paragraphs into five pages.

Another useful technique is to get hold of a good friend, imaginary or otherwise, start a recorder going, and tell them the story. A live person works better, because they can ask questions when you’ve been unclear, but even lecturing an imaginary audience can be a help. If you have a trustworthy beta-reader who has read the whole thing, ask them to tell you the story. (Do not ask them to write the synopsis. That trick never works.) This can be especially useful if you are having trouble picking out “the main story.”

In the end, your synopsis is likely to sound dry and boring compared to your 100,000 word novel. You’re going to have to leave out lots of cool details and intricate subplots. It’s going to lose all your charming style and infectious humor. It’s not going to have any emotional impact.

Don’t worry about it. Everybody else’s synopsis has exactly the same problems.

And for those who still hunger for more analysis, try Miss Snark’s posts on the subject. Miss Snark is, alas, no longer blogging, but she’s left plenty of great reading material.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,