QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Taming the Dreaded Synopsis

We'd all like to live in denial that this thing exists at all, but you need one if you're querying. The synopsis. The 800-word summary of your 95,000 word novel.

(Nonfiction writers, you may breathe easier: you do not need to produce one of these monsters.)

The query and the synopsis are different animals. Your query needs to entice and leave tantalizing questions. Your synopsis needs to tell a story and provide us with answers.  And despite the three-times-greater word count, your synopsis has more than three times as much work to do, so you still need to write tight.

Like the query, the synopsis is primarily a selling tool. It will give a quick overview of your entire novel from soup to nuts, proving to the agents and editors that you understand story structure, that your story has both a plot arc and a character arc, and that you know how to pull together a satisfying ending. Your synopsis will also need to show how the stakes increase during the course of the story. It will need to hit all the major plot changes and introduce the major characters and their issues. Readers of your synopsis will need to care about your character and root for the character to succeed. For SF/Fantasy writers, you'll need to include world-building as well.

Many of the techniques you use for writing fiction will have to come to bear in the synopsis. Powerful verbs, sentence rhythm, saying a thing once and not needing to repeat it. And other techniques will just have to go by the wayside.

The synopsis should run between 500 and 1000 words, unless the agent or editor requests a different length. (I've seen several who want a one-page synopsis. Give them what they want.)

A synopsis is not a chapter-by-chapter outline of what happens. I've tried that, and it's a mess. Instead you need to focus on the frame of your story and give us the "story beats," (as Blake Snyder would say in Save The Cat) and give us only what we need.

1) Your main character's inciting incident, with a description of your main character worked into that description.

2) What your main character decides to do about that.

3) Descriptions of other main characters as necessary, but worked into the story.

This is how I opened the synopsis for the revised edition of my first novel, The Guardian.
The Guardian opens as a guardian angel stands trial for murder. Although the other angels, and even Tabris himself, expect God to send him to Hell, God inexplicably grants Tabris mercy and a second chance. On probation, Tabris is deployed as an assistant guardian to a ten-year-old girl named Elizabeth.
Where does this fall flat? I didn't give any description of Tabris. I could have said everyone was shocked because Tabris was considered one of the most conscientious angels until this happened. I could have said Tabris was a former commander in Michael's army. I felt the setup here was compelling enough that the description could wait.

You'll need also to establish the stakes.
Although Tabris tries to fit into the new routine with the family's other guardian angels, he's torn by grief and guilt. His new companions don't want him around, speculating that he must have hated his previous charge and wondering if he might harm Elizabeth--or the other family members. Tabris still loves God but can't bring himself to pray, convinced that when he does, God will refuse him. The only one who does seem to want Tabris is, unfortunately, Zeffar, a demon who changes names every time they meet but always presses for the same thing: he wants Tabris to join him in rebellion so he'll fall forever.
So we've got stakes (both internal and external), we've got both internal and external opposition, and we've got an antagonist. 

And after that, I set out to follow the threads of the A-story (how Tabris adjusts to guarding Elizabeth, and what Elizabeth's guardian does about his presence) and the B-story (how Zeffar begins seducing Tabris in order to assure his fall.)

As you go through your synopsis, think broad strokes. Your novel is the Mona Lisa, but your synopsis is going to be a coloring book rendering of the Mona Lisa. Give us the outlines. The novel will have to provide the shading and the contours.

Make sure your synopsis mentions the midpoint of the novel (where the plot probably takes a major turn, along with the false-high or a low,) the point where "the bad guys close in" (or the situation takes a sharp turn for the worse,) the main character's darkest hour, the "help from outside" (or however your character manages to get his groove back) and then the climax. Make sure to mention how both the A-plot and the B-plot are resolved.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about with some of these "story beats," here's a brief summary of Save The Cat.

While in a query you must not answer all the questions (all the better to tantalize) you must do so in your synopsis. If there's a secret ending, for the synopsis it should not be secret anymore. All the major plot twists and turns must be included. Yes, Luke, I am your father, and all that stuff no one suspects while they're going through the book? It'll have to be in there.

In eight hundred words or thereabouts.

It's not fun, but it's doable. Good luck!


Jane Lebak's novel The Guardian will be re-released this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells.


Matthew MacNish said...

Instant bookmark.

Mart Ramirez said...

Great post!! Love STC!

Mark Koopmans said...

Wow, thanks... so much great info :) Also bookmarked and hey, STC rocks here, too :)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Awesome post, Jane. I am soooooo bad at this kind of thing. Saved!