QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Short: Writing a Novel Synopsis That Rocks

Okay, QT's... as promised I am back to discuss how to create a rockin' synopsis.Now-- just like with a novel-- there is no single way to write a synopsis. There are many folks on these internets and in Pitchcraft texts such as Katharine Sands' Making the Perfect Pitch or The Sell-Your-Novel Toolkit giving advice on how to write a compelling synopsis. I'll include links to several of the online references at the bottom of this post.

In general, the recommended processes fall into one of two categories: to start with your one-word logline (which our lovely guest blogger Michelle McLean discussed yesterday) and build up. Or to start with your novel and condense down.

While either method may work well for you, the best synopses in my experience were created using the second method. I'm going to describe the system I use for synopses and why it works for me.

When I first began preparing my manuscript submission, I drafted a 2-page synopsis using the "just describe your novel as briefly as possible" method. To admit that my original synopsis failed to rock would be an understatement. In attempting to be as brief as possible while "revealing all", I had virtually eliminated the component that makes a project unique.

I had surgically extracted my voice from my work.

Luckily, before I began submissions, I found another way.

A contest I was considering entering required an 8-page synopsis. I had read that agents or editors may request a "Chapter Synopsis," which is a brief summary of each chapter of your novel. So, I decided to write my chapter synopsis first, and then see where I was lengthwise.

Now, chapter synopses are not often requested. In fact, despite many requested proposals for my manuscript, I have yet to send my chapter synopsis for The Edge of Memory to a single agent. But I still strongly recommend you write one. Here's why:

1. For me (and for most writers I know), it is much easier to edit down than up. The chapter synopsis will hit all your main conflicts and give you the length flexibility to preserve your voice. Then you can cherry-pick the best bits when you trim down to the length you need. BONUS: Agents will request synopses of varying lengths. My requested synopses have varied from 1 - 8 pages. You can create these various lengths along the way as your editing progresses.

2. It's a lot less daunting to summarize a chapter than it is to summarize a WHOLE manuscript. The Baby Steps approach is nothing new, but it is surprisingly effective.

3. The chapter synopsis will help you to edit your novel Big Picture style. Our writing, our characters are personal. In the creative whirlwind of drafting a novel, we sometimes create scenes that don't resonate with the rest of the story. Once they've been created, and edited to polish the writing to a blinding shine, it can be easy to miss the fact that the scene isn't actually necessary to the story we're telling. Or that the characters have changed since the scene was written.

Each chapter, like a novel, should have a beginning, middle, and an ending. And the chapter, overall, should work to improve our understanding of the characters and to advance the plot. You might well discover while composing your chapter synopsis that a chapter or two needs reorganizing, or your novel may be stronger without them altogether.

So, here's my recommended method for writing your synopsis:

Step One: For each of your chapters, write 2 - 3 sentences to summarize. Use strong verbs and language that captures your tone and voice as much as possible. Focus on the CONFLICTS. For mine, I wrote three sentences for each chapter. The set-up, the conflict, and the resolution.

For example, my first chapter summary reads:

When a young girl collapses in an unfamiliar house, no one knows where she came from or how she ended up on war widow Thea Greyson's front porch that stormy night. Thirty years later, Beatrice is devastated by the death of the woman that took her in. But her grief turns to a sense of betrayal when she discovers the letter from her birth mother that Thea claimed was lost.
Which may seem familiar to you if you follow the BookEnds blog (where Jessica Faust critiqued query pitches over the holidays). Because, with some minor revisions... Hello, first-half-of-query-pitch!

Step 2: If you're having trouble identifying the beginning, middle and ending of a chapter, there may be a problem with the chapter itself. Revise your manuscript as necessary.

Step 3: Once you've written a few sentences for each chapter, check your summaries for chapters which are not working because they are unnecessary, tangential, inconsistent, etc. Revise your manuscript as necessary.

Step 4: Group your chapters into acts. Most story arcs follow a three-act format. The first act generally establishes the protagonist's starting place (the first act is also usually the shortest) and continues to the point where your catalyst drives or forces the protagonist to make or endure a change. The second act is represented by the series of events that bring the protagonist to the climax. In the third and final act, the story rises to its climax and resolution.

For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the first act would end when Dorothy lands in Oz. The second act would comprise the journey to the Emerald City, and the third and final act would consist of the climactic showdown with the Wicked Witch of the West, and the resolution where each character realizes they already have the power within themselves to get what they want.

Step 5: Get out your editing scalpel. Depending on the length of your novel and chapters, your chapter synopsis will probably be longer than your desired length. So now, within your three-act collections of chapter summaries, you'll have to start trimming. Based on the requests I've received, I would recommend trimming to a 5-page length, and then trimming further to 1 - 2 pages. You can always edit to other lengths if necessary, but the vast majority of requests are satisfied with one of those two options.

Step 6: Read your synopsis aloud to yourself, looking for words or phrases that fall flat or pull the reader out of the narrative. The end result should resemble the sort of descriptions you see for movies in TV Guide and the like. Brief and punchy... don't let yourself get bogged down in things like setting or physical descriptions of the characters.

Step 7: Check to be sure you've accomplished your basic synopsis goals. Have you established the main characters and their motivations? Have you demonstrated the main conflict and the obstacles preventing the protagonist from achieving his or her goals? Do the events of your plot unfold naturally without resorting to cliches or plot devices? Do your plot twists culminate in a climax? Is the resolution of the story conflicts thorough and satisfying (Have you tied up any loose ends?) Does the language and tone of your synopsis reflect YOUR voice?

If your synopsis has done those things, Congratulations!

You now have a synopsis that rocks. Yay, you!

Don't forget the Novel Synopsis Basics we talked about last week, or course. ;)

For other folks' thoughts on writing a synopsis, check out these links:

Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis
Writing a Synopsis From the Ground Up
Writing the Synopsis: The Basics to Get Your Book Synopsis Written
How to Write a Synopsis
Workshop: Writing the Novel Synopsis

ETA (2/9/09): Jessica Faust posted a nice guideline of synopses on the BookEnds Blog this morning.

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.


Helen Ginger said...

Really liked this. You broke the process down step by step and made it doable. Thanks.

I do a weekly e-newsletter for writers and I'm going to include a link to your blog in next week's issue.

Helen Ginger

Unknown said...

Once again, H, you've created a masterpiece. This breaks down the synopsis-creation process into something very manageable. Thank you! :-)

Patrick said...

Great article Heather. You have slain the synopsis monster.

Suzette Saxton said...

Aha! The much-awaited second half of your rockin' synopsis article! Thank you so much for breaking it down into simple steps. I can do this!

Elana Johnson said...

Dude, I'm going to do this this weekend. This this. Whatev. You know what I mean.

Captain Hook said...

This is going to be a great help! Thank you so much. I seriously have always sucked at synopses.

H. L. Dyer said...

I'm so glad this seems helpful.

And thanks, Helen, for the anticipated linkage! :)

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

The very idea of a synopsis can put me into a cold sweat. I seriously hate the things... but I think your chapter by chapter method might actually work - I will definitely try it.

When I wrote my first synopsis I found some great examples of both what I should and should not do on the Miss Snark blog. If you google: Miss Snark, synopsis, and crapometer you should find about a hundred examples there.

Paul W. West, Author said...

Great information.

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

FANTASTIC post - as always. You guys have really nailed the art of presenting information in a way that streamlines this daunting task. Thank you

Blee Bonn said...

Wow, that is awesome stuff. Thank you so much. I need to write a synopsis but have been dreading it and putting it off. Now I'm motivated after reading your post.

Thank you!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Thank you so much! I think this will help a lot. i'm about to write my first synopsis.

Unknown said...

Your synopsis doesn't have to be very long, it just has to heat up interest to your article a bit, not just reveal the most interesting points.
But at the same time it has to be not very short, so people can't understand anything about your book.
As you see, you have t o find a golden middle.
Browse this page for examples