Writing the Synopsis

There will come a day when your agent asks for a synopsis. You'll quickly acquiesce to his or her wishes, confident in your abilities to dash off a clear, engaging, coherent summary of your work and how it will find its way to the center of an editor, and later an audience's, heart. You've written the query letter and that worked. You've written the novel and that worked. But believe me, when this day comes it'll go down as a memorable one because no activity in writing is as painful or difficult as writing the synopsis.

You might as well be giving a kidney. Or birth to a human baby.

Maybe that's a little hyperbolic.

But it's truly a difficult task. And the really maddening thing about the process is the variance of importance that editors apply to this document. Some put a lot of emphasis on it. They want a short, succinct, crisply written selling tool to decide whether they'll read the manuscript. Others read the sample pages, then consult the synopsis to see if the plot makes sense. And some don't look at it at all.

What is the synopsis? It's your novel in a nutshell. And it's a marketing tool, so it's very important to devote your strongest efforts to its composition. Your agent will use it in the pitch. Your editor might use it to promote the book.

The rules on formatting and length are vague. I've heard of some writers putting together ten double-spaced pages. That's an awful long synopsis, and I don't know that busy editors will be turned on by reading that much prose. After posing questions at conferences, consulting writers here at the college and conducting research on the web, I'd say the optimal length would check in at two to four pages.

Everything else remains about the same. Double space the writing. Include a header with the title of the project, your last name, the lable "synopsis" (you'll be amazed how many random documents go into the full pitch packet, so keep everything as clear as possible) and the page number. Use 1" margins and a readable font (Courier New or Times New Roman) between 10-12 in type-size.

In terms of content, this is where you need to summon the movie voice-over guy in the back of your brain. You'll also want to call on that lady that writes the taglines for the film posters.

Because it's all about selling now.

The synopsis is the written trailer for your novel. It needs a hook, and it needs to grab the reader in the opening phrase. Ask yourself the question: What is my novel about? Then answer it, using an active voice, and set up your plot. Your opening paragraphs should outline the content and set up the story. My second paragraph sets up the reach of the oral tradition in Oregon:

It’s a legend recounted by teenagers on the beach, their faces glowing in the light of driftwood bonfires while the relentless surf pounds across tide pools behind them. Hundreds of years old, it’s a narrative that lives in shadow—often transmitted in the dying hours of the night.

Then I pull the trigger on the tagline:

But behind every legend lies a foundation based upon truth.

Kind of corny, I admit, but it sets the stage for a supernatural creature feature. I can then readily launch into the historic aspects of my novel and sprinkle in characterization. Every major character needs to be discussed, including a short (one sentence) description that includes their flaws, defining characteristics and/or strengths.

Write the synopsis chronologically and focus on the parts of the plot that best express the conflict. You don't need (nor should you include) every last detail. The art, and the maddening frustration, of the synopsis is deciding how much to show. Leave out minor characters. Don't describe every scene. Focus on the story. And in fact, read it out loud to yourself twenty times before you decide if it works. It should flow as easily for you as if you were sitting around the fire, telling it to your friends on the beach.

As you approach the conclusion, it's again time to talk a little bit about yourself and the novel. Mention whether it's a stand-alone project or part of a series. Talk about the novel's key selling points (I spoke about the popularity of urban legends and storytelling, the historic aspects of the novel and its identity as a Northwestern Gothic). Mention some of the writers whose work it would share shelf space with and, if it's appropriate, where you would like to see yourself as a writer. I concluded with:

Horror writers tend to mind their own gardens. Bentley Little writes extensively about the dark side of the Southwest. Brian Keene reveals the shadows of everyday life in Maryland.
And Stephen King’s Maine is as conceptually real and vivid in the minds of his readers as the seat they are sitting in when they read his words on the page. Wendigo humbly represents the first in a line of stories that will do the same for the state of Oregon.

This is a long post--sorry about that. And it's a cursory look at the process, not meant to stand as a "hard and fast" set of guidelines. But it's a damned tough shake, this synopsis business. I'd recommend you get started if you're done with the first draft. This is the type of secondary composition--the writing about your writing--that will take lots of drafting and patience to get right.

Oregon Ducks #10 in the BCS Poll. That is a travesty...

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