Do, Don'ts and Never Minds:
Writing a Snazzy Synopsis

Presented by
Margaret Moore

What is a synopsis? What's its purpose?

A synopsis is a straightforward telling of your story in the present tense, used to give editors information about the book you want them to buy and how it's written. It provides the general gist of the story -- the main characters, the conflicts, the major events and, if it's a romance, how the relationship between the hero and heroine is going to develop. A synopsis is a tool an editor uses to decide if you have a grasp of certain basics; if you can't prove that in a synopsis, they're going to doubt you can write a publishable book.

That said, if you're an unpublished author, a synopsis is not going to sell your book, nor is a poorly written one going to utterly destroy your chances. It's the chapters -- the actual book itself -- that are going to sell your book. Editors know not everybody can excell at a shorter format.

Published authors can sell on a synopsis before the book is written, but that's because they've already proven they can write a publishable, full-length manuscript. It's that book, and its sales, that determine the next sale. To be sure, a great concept and snazzy synopsis will help, but again, they alone rarely sell a book.

A synopsis should include:

Who the main characters are and why we should care about them.
It's vital to the success of your book that readers become interested in your characters and concerned about their fate. Depending on the length of your synopsis, you may not have much room to do this; nevertheless, a synopsis should establish, by your characters's goals, motives and backstory, that they're unique, not stereotyped, creations worthy of our attention.

Where and when the story is taking place.
This should be done quickly and briefly, even if you're writing about a totally fictitious world. We need to know enough to realize we're not on earth, but save the details for the book. Similarly, if you're writing a historical, terms like "medieval" and "Regency" do a lot of the work for you. If you're writing about a less familiar time period, you may need more details to explain a particular incident, but brevity is vital in a synopsis. If you spend a long time on the history or descriptions of the setting, editors may fear your book is going to be dominated by historical facts and overburdened by details.

The conflicts, both internal and external.
In a romance, the external conflicts are those story events outside the characters that impede the development of the relationship between the hero and heroine, while also forcing your hero and heroine to interact. They reveal your characters' goals and motivations, and provide the opportunity for backstory. If they don't do that, they aren't important enough for your synopsis -- or your romance novel, either.

The internal conflicts are those conflicts within the characters that makes each character think that the relationship isn't viable. These conflicts are rooted in your characters' personal histories.

Conflict is the fuel that powers your story, because it influences the decisions your characters make, and it's those decisions that propel the story to its conclusion. Therefore, it's important that the conflicts are clear and focused on the characters, not broad historical facts or vague misunderstandings.

The main events in the story and, in a romance, that means the situations that help or hinder the developing romantic relationship between the hero and heroine.
I can't emphasis this enough. I've seen many an unpublished author's synopsis dismiss the relationship with a simple statement such as "On the run from the mob, Dick and Jane fall in love."

However, that overlooks and brushes off the main reason a reader picks up a romance. They want to see that romance grow and change and deepen over the course of the novel -- or they'd read something else

But, you protest, I only have two pages! I can't possibly get that in.

Yes, you can. I've seen it done. How? By including a sentence or two telling (it's a synopsis, so telling is allowed!) how a certain event has affected the relationship between the hero and heroine. If it hasn't affected the relationship, it's not important -- not in a synopsis, and not in the book, either. I don't care how fascinating or exciting it may be; it doesn't belong in your romance.

It's also through this changing, developing relationship that your characters are going to change and develop, and this is something editors will be looking for. Your main characters should not be the same people at the end of the story that they were at the beginning.

A bit of backstory, the personal history of your characters.
We need to know why a character does what he does, or feels what she feels -- but just enough to explain their decisions at key points in the story. We don't need to know much beyond that in a synopsis; save the longer explanations for the book.

The resolution.
The editor needs to know you know how the story is going to end and that you can bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. This is no time to be coy.

Other Important Things a Synopsis Should Do

Prove you can tell a story coherently.
This may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised.

Prove that you have a grasp of dramatic structure.
The editor wants to be confident that you know what should happen at the beginning (how to hook the reader), the middle (how to keep it interesting and the pace from slowing) and the ending (crisis, climax and resolution).

If it's a romance, prove that you understand that a romance is about the developing relationship and, unless it's a love-at-first-sight story, how the characters are going to go from "no way" to "I can't live without you." If it is a love-at-first-sight story, the editor wants to see that you've got enough conflict and other events to prevent an easy resolution, or you're going to have one mighty short book.

Show that your characters are interesting and have believable conflicts and motivation.
An editor needs to know that your characters are going to appeal to readers, and that the story truly will depend on those particular characters and their backstory, goals and motives to move it along.

There are two basic ways to present your characters, and both are acceptable to editors.

1. Some authors provide short character sketches of the main characters first, then tell the story. The appeal of this method is that you don't have to explain motivation as the story progresses. It's there in the sketches.
2. The other method is to start where the book starts and reveal character motivation when and where it would be revealed in the book.

Demonstrate that there's enough material for a full-length book.
Even in a short synopsis, the editor has to get the sense that your story isn't going to sputter out after the first 100 pages, and that you've planned enough events, decisions and reactions to keep the story going in an interesting, compelling way to its conclusion.

Indicate the tone of the book.
If the book is a romp, the synopsis should sound like a romp. If it's a gritty, dramatic tale, that should come across in the synopsis.

Reveal your voice.
What is an author's voice? It's your unique way of telling a story, the thing that, most of all, separates you from other authors, so this is essential. This may be the one thing that makes your work stand out above the rest, makes it seem fresh and new, and makes an editor want to see more work from you.

Tips for Writing a Snazzy Synopsis

Write the first draft for yourself alone.
Don't worry about finding the perfect words, or leaving something out. Don't worry about language (I use slang all the time in first drafts). Don't worry about length. Just sit down and tell your story. This is a good way to convey a sense of your author's voice in a synopsis, and you don't want your synopsis to read like a dry laundry list of events.

Read it through.
If the synopsis is for a book already complete, what have you left out that really should be there? Have you made your characters's decisions and the reasons behind them clear and understandable? Have you shown how every reaction to every situation and the subsequent decisions your characters make leads to the climax and conclusion? If it's a romance, have you shown the reader a developing relationship that, whatever the problems that have beset your characters, the reader can believe will be a long-lasting one?

If this synopsis is for a book not yet written, what major plot problems do you see? Anything that doesn't seem believable, logical, credible? What about your characters? Do you know why they're going to do what you want them to do? Will the reader understand and appreciate those reasons?

Once you've taken care of the vitals of character and plot, look at things like word choice and length.
Look for repetitions, physical descriptions, unnecessary details (anything not absolutely essential to the story). Change sentences into clauses, clauses into phrases, phrases into adverbs or adjectives -- then cut them out. Try to use descriptive verbs.

But here's where it gets tricky. You don't want to edit out your voice, so if you've used a sentence, clause or phrase that you really like and sounds like the writing in your chapters, leave it alone.

Again, make sure you're very clear about how the relationship changes and develops over the course of the book.

Instead of thinking of writing a synopsis as some intimidating, horrible, yet necessary, chore, think of it as simply telling a story. Writers are storytellers, after all, so just tell your story. It's surely a very exciting, fascinating tale of a couple you really like, who met like this, who went on to have this really interesting, passionate relationship and you aren't gonna believe what happened ....

Practice Makes Perfect

Like every other kind of writing, the more you do, the better you'll get. If you want some extra practice, or you're just starting out and the thought of doing a synopsis for a story of your own seems too much, try these simple exercises.

Write a synopsis for the last book you read.

Write synopses for your favorite movies.

Read reviews -- not just for the reviewer's opinion, but for the way they summarize character and plot information.

Start a journal or diary. Write a synopsis of your day. This is also a good way to discover your writer's voice.

Write short character sketches of your friends, looking to "capture" them in the fewest possible words.


The Evolution of a Synopsis

First Draft Synopsis

Final Draft Synopsis


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