Sunday, August 8, 2010


So what's the formula for the perfect synopsis, you may well ask (and someone did, hence this post).

 That's easy. It's the one that gets your manuscript read. Duh.

 Like with queries, there are hundreds of sites that outline how to write a synopsis along with any number of examples. And there is a LOT of conflicting advice. Single space or double space? Capitalize character names on first mention or not? Repeat phrases from your query or not?

 A few agents post details about the format they want to see. It goes without saying you follow those guidelines when they're given. For the majority, though, the most specific they get may be "short". So here are some main highlights of what I think the general formula is (and which may or may not conflict with what anyone else has to say because, as agents are quick to remind us, this is a very subjective business).
  • Focus on the main characters. Mention secondary characters only as their storylines influence the actions of your MCs.
  • Focus on the main plot. Mention subplots only as they influence the resolution of the main plot.
  • Do not blatantly come out and say what your themes are. The actions of your MCs and the words you choose to describe what's happening should all inform the reader of those themes.
  • Even if your story bounces around in time and space, tell it as straightforwardly as possible. The synopsis is the place to enlighten, not confuse, the reader.
  • Double-spaced and 500-800 words is safe territory.
  • Stay away from gimmicks, such as having your MC tell the story in his/her own words.
  • Use third-person POV.
  • Use present tense.
  • Think informational writing style. You can let some of your voice creep in, but keep it clear and precise. Don't let the writing get in the way of the reader figuring out what your story is about.
  • On the other hand, remember that informational writing does NOT mean boring writing. Infuse some emotion into the synopsis. Bring your storytelling skills to the table. Nothing is more yawn-inducing than a 3-page list of events: this happens and then this happens and then this happens. Show the characters reacting to circumstances and how those reactions drive the plot to its inevitable conclusion.
  • Keep the tone of the synopsis in line with the tone of the book. If the story is light and funny, be sure you choose details that demonstrate the situational or characterizational humor. If it's horror, use appropriate dark images and language to set the mood.
  • If the story is genre, include the conventions that make it so. For romance, include the h/h's first meeting, first kiss or sexual encounter, and the dark moment. For thrillers, include the tension-inducing "ticking clock". For mystery, include a few of the red herrings. This is the place to convince readers you know the conventions and have followed them appropriately.
  • An agent isn't reading for pleasure -- they are evaluating a product. For them, it isn't just about the destination but about the entire journey from Point A to Point B. To properly evaluate, they need to know where and what Point B is. Tell them.
  • Give away the ending.
  • Give away the ending.
  • Give away the ending. (Got it?)
A synopsis is nothing more than a way to demonstrate to agents that your story hangs together from beginning to end. That your characters make believable choices and have believable reactions. And that the plot doesn't suffer from "aliens showing up in chapter 14" syndrome to resolve things. If the synopsis does that, and does it in clear, easy-to-follow language, then it's going to do its job -- which is to get the agent to read the manuscript itself.

So far, there are 3 4 5 synopses in the queue for critting. I may post a couple of them out a little early depending on how many query revisions come in, what the weather's like in Belgium, or how well the stock market is doing. So be prepared!

Also, remember that you don't have to have your novel completed before you write a practice query or synopsis for it. In fact, writing those tools beforehand can help you focus better on the novel. Unless, of course, you're the ultimate pantster and have no idea what's going to happen in the story until you sit down that day and write it.


Michelle Massaro said...

Thank you sooo much Miss Phoenix for sharing your expertise with us, for pouring your life into others. Thanks! And I can't wait for my turn! *biting my nails though*

Phoenix said...

It's lessons learned, Michelle. Years ago, before the Internet and the wealth of info now available with the click of a mouse, I (ahem) sent out a synopsis written from the MC's POV. I thought is was soooo original. I didn't know any better and was properly chagrined when I found out how many others did that and how it branded me as a complete and hopeless newbie. One prominent author confessed to once sending out a query in verse. We don't know what we don't know and all that...

Michelle Massaro said...

Well, we certainly are very lucky to now have the internet! Seriously, I don't know how we all survived without it! But even more valuable than Google is people like you who share those lessons learned with all of us complete and hopeless newbies. =)

sylvia said...

# Give away the ending.

# Give away the ending.

# Give away the ending. (Got it?)

LOL! I love this, mainly because it really did take me three goes to finally do a synop with the full story. It's really hard to accept that it's the right thing to do!

sylvia said...

goes? go's? attempts.