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Now that you’ve had the pleasure of boiling down your entire novel, memoir or nonfiction book into a single “elevator pitch” and tucked it neatly into your one-page query letter, it’s time to address the next big marketing piece: the dreaded synopsis!
As Jane Friedman explains it, “…an agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your story. Thus, the synopsis must convey a book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, and it has to reveal the ending.”
Yes, that’s right. This one’s a gigantic spoiler alert. But agents and editors aren’t looking for a tantalizing teaser, back-cover blurb copy or a literary analysis of your work’s themes. They just want to know if your story actually holds up and is interesting enough for them to spend hours, days, weeks, months working on it with you.
In some ways, it’s easier than you think, especially if you’ve already written your entire book, which ought to be the case if you’re writing fiction. Novelists—even published ones who haven’t hit the bestseller list just yet—generally have to complete their entire manuscript before an agent or editor will even take a peek.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-, what you have to do is distill everything that happens in your book, from beginning to end, into a perfectly readable package that tells all in between 500-800 words.
Believe it or not, the synopsis is a moment when writers must TELL instead of SHOW. I know, we’ve been chiding you for years to do just the opposite. Your narrative arc should flow in a synopsis with the same grace and tone as the actual book, but you cannot waste valuable word-space going into undue description or minute detail.
If you’re working on straight nonfiction, you don’t want to dig too deeply into your chapter topics. Instead, touch on their basic focus and how they connect to build your argument or present the book’s objectives. With fiction and memoir, you’ll want to focus primarily on plot and action, but also reflect on the characters’ feelings. The emotional rise and fall as they struggle, fail or triumph throughout the book is the glue that binds the characters’ actions together. Without them, the synopsis will feel mechanical and detached.
There should also be a touch of your writing style and the characters’ voices in the flow, all the while maintaining a high level overview written in third person, active voice and present tense to give the reader the sense that this is a summary, not a sample chapter.
The other great thing about writing a synopsis is that it will help you recognize where your narrative has gone wrong. If your story is too complicated to distill down and still flow, it might be too complicated to start with. In fact, I often recommend that my students write a draft synopsis after their first or second draft. Besides getting down a draft that you can rework and polish until it’s truly ready for submission, you also can use the synopsis to recognize plot flaws, inconsistencies in character motivation, structure issues, unnecessary tangents and much more.
Think of the synopsis as an X-ray of the plot. If the bones are all twisted and misshapen, or if you simply have odd bones sticking out all over the place (There’s actually a disease like that, and trust me, it isn’t good!), you’re going to see it in the draft synopsis far better than when you’re caught up in the voluptuous flesh of your carefully crafted prose.
Here’s how I approach a first pass synopsis (and yes, you’ll do a second and a third and…):
After you’ve finished your draft, skim through it, noting down a sentence or two about what happens chapter by chapter. Focus on the main actions in the plot, but also on what your main characters want and need. As they make their next moves, record how events affects them, tracking the rise and fall of tension and emotion that results in their growth and transformation through their journey.
I recommend doing a really rough draft – even a bullet-point and indented outline of your plot. Once you’ve written everything down, highlight the critical pieces that tie to the central narrative. You’ll probably find that the moments tucked deeper into the indents are less important to the narrative flow. That’s the signal to carve them out in the synopsis.
Once you have your rough cut, it’s time to start crafting. Spend a little extra time in the opening establishing the main character or two and the setting of your book. By laying a strong foundation, your characters can move forward more simply and efficiently within their world.
It’s going to take a bit of courage to figure out what to keep and what to chuck. This is truly “killing your darlings.” But remember, you aren’t killing them in your manuscript. (At least not unless you discover through the synopsis that they shouldn’t be there at all!) You have to be brutally honest, though, about what really needs to be explained. For example, if the climax won’t make sense without mentioning a plot point or character, then you should definitely mention them. The same goes for anything that critically raises tension or twists the plot. Whereas, moments and characters that are backstory or happening “meanwhile” probably should go.
The exercise may sound daunting, but you’ll learn a lot from stepping back and taking this high-flying view of your creation. After you’ve drafted your synopsis, not only will you have a marketing piece to hone for future submissions, but you’ll be ready to face your second or third drafts armed with a stronger sense of how well your plot is working.