Synopsis Advice

The following material was prepared for the Fairwood Synopsis Class at Norwescon 38, on April 2, 2015   

(courtesy of Catherine Montrose)

I. Three types of synopses are useful to fiction writers:
            a. Working synopsis that helps you draft the novel
            b. Reverse outline/revision synopsis that helps you tighten and rearrange the novel
            c. Sales synopsis that helps you sell the novel to an agent and editor

A. The Working Synopsis follows the plot from beginning to end, leaving nothing out. Because it's for the writer's use, it can contain any number of useful pieces: chapter descriptions, scene descriptions, character information, notes about plot structure, setting notes, questions and alternate versions of parts of the book, and plot or motivation gaps. Even pieces of dialogue can fit in. This can be a long document. For some writers, it can run 30 to 50 pages.
            Some people start with a working synopsis before writing their first draft. I tend to write five or six chapters and get a feeling for the story before beginning to develop the plot summary and notes that become the working synopsis. Some pieces of the working synopsis may appear later in my sales synopsis, so I save everything, and save different versions.

B. The Reverse Outline Revision Synopsis is a technique where you break down the whole piece into labeled and possibly interchangeable chunks. Don't use this technique until you have written the whole story or at least a long, complete section (such as a first act). Here are the steps to creating one:

            a. Read slowly through the manuscript and write labels in the margins of scenes. A note might look like: Alessandro sees the sacrificed man, and chooses to cooperate rather than die. He is possessed by Tezcatlipoca and fights his way back to himself. Chance to escape, intense action. Mood: scary and surreal.  Notice that this note is not just about what happens. Resist the impulse to write down everything you think about the scene, however, because you're going to be transcribing this, or at least printing out your notes.

            b. Once you've gone through the book (or a section; I do this for each of the three major "acts" of the story), print out your marginal notes without the manuscript text, or copy them onto note cards, or create a document with a separate note on each page.

            c. Read through only the notes. Look for character development, scene order, rising tension, major shifts in plot or character, high points of action or danger, low points emotionally, and the progress of subplots. Are pieces missing? Are some scenes unnecessary or underdeveloped? Does the story make sense from the notes? Mark up the notes -- I use colored pens for different elements.

            d. Revise for structure, tension, and character development using the scene notes as a guideline. Especially if elements have moved around in the story, be sure these changes are reflected in the current version of your working synopsis.

C. The Sales Synopsis
            Although it's about the same story as both other types above, this is uniquely short and focused on the character's emotional journey from beginning to end. Lots of detail is left out. Typically, these days, sales synopses are about 2-3 pages long. You may need an even shorter 1-pager for agents. Many agents describe what they want on their websites. The goal of this synopsis is to convey the excitement of the story and the intensity of the character's actions and decisions. If the story is science fiction/fantasy, you'll also need to include enough world-building details to give the flavor of your created setting. Everything in this synopsis should hook the reader -- agent or editor -- and make them want to read the fully detailed version of the story. Every major plot point should be here, including the final conflict and the ending.
            In a query letter, often writers leave the ending out, but it has to be there in a synopsis. It should also clearly resolve whatever major problems are set up for the main character in the beginning. Sometimes the act of writing a sales synopsis helps you see where your ending or your beginning needs improvement -- because describing what happens doesn't seem interesting or compelling enough. Your synopsis may reveal something you didn't realize when you were writing the novel.
            One way to approach a sales synopsis is to set the manuscript aside and write the synopsis from memory. You can always fill in a few details later. But if you met someone who asked "What is your book about?" what would you tell them?
            You should avoid any judgments on the quality of the story, leaving that to the reader. If you say "This thrilling chase scene leads to a moving death scene," it sounds immediately amateurish. Just tell the story, focusing on character motivation, action, obstacles, and reactions. Emotions and character struggles should be the central focus here, not "this happened and then this happened" from your plot. Expect to take a lot of time and have to revise this over and over until it reads like a good short-short story.

D. Sales Synopsis Exercise
            Even shorter than a synopsis is the logline, a punchy sentence that sums up your story.  Some people like to start the synopsis with a logline.  You might also think of this as the marketing “buzz” about your story that would show up on the back cover of your novel.  The following Word Cloud brainstorming exercise can help develop the “logline” and the first paragraph of your synopsis:

Write your main character's name in the middle of the page and circle it. Start writing words that come to mind when you think about your character and the things that affect him or her during the story. Keep these words concrete, but don't include names.
            After five minutes, take a look at your word cloud. Circle about 20 or 25 words that jump out at you as vivid, insightful, or key pieces of information. These can help you write your logline for the first paragraph of your synopsis. Next, write a very long sentence or two that include the words you circled and describe the story to an interested reader. Then, of course, the next step is to revise, cut, and redo those sentences until you distill them into a hook that informs and entices. A cliffhanger ending is okay in this part, although you'll give away the ending later. Don't include any questions. Tell the story swiftly and with energy.

One formula is "main character + desire + problem + obstacles + character change + final danger." There are many other ways to approach the logline, too. Anything works that makes the agent or editor want to read on and find out more.

E. Sales Synopsis Hints
            a. Include a header with your name, the word count of the novel, its genre type, and your contact information. (Some agents prefer this at the end; do your research and follow their preferences.) Your credentials, awards, publications, or other data belong in your cover letter, not your synopsis.

            b. Start with a snappy paragraph that is your version of Back Cover Copy or Logline. For my YA novel, the "logline" reads: Davy Carloman, the fifteen-year-old middle child in a magical family, must find his own path when his family vanishes, leaving him to face a charismatic eco-terrorist, a rival magical family, and the excitement of his first romance.

            c. Note that this, and every other paragraph, is written in present tense and in third person. Most editors and agents prefer this style, no matter what tense and person the novel itself is written in.

            d. Now write a plot summary that tells where your character starts, what he or she wants or needs, and what happens to spark the story or begin the adventure. Use fairly short paragraphs, aiming for about 1000 words total. Emphasize how the plot affects the character's motivations, actions, and emotional reactions and desires. Include major obstacles and plot twists, and describe the story all the way to the ending. Leave no cliffhangers or teasers.

            e. If you're like me, this will take about 5 or 6 pages and will have to be ruthlessly cut. To do this, I print out the draft synopsis and highlight the most important, telling, and exciting bits. Then I use my purple pen to delete whatever I can that isn't highlighted. Then it's back to the computer to hack away, but I do save the first, longer version as a separate document. If necessary, I repeat the printout, highlight good stuff, mark out unnecessary stuff, then revise on computer process.

            f. What can you leave out? Minor characters, subplots that don't directly affect the course of the main plot, setting descriptions beyond a few sentences, cultural details about your wonderful invented world beyond a few sentences that help us understand the character's journey.

            g. Now go back and revise it again, taking out passive language, "to be" verbs, extra adjectives, and adverbs. You want all your verbs to be active if possible. Not "Luke Skywalker is a bored farm boy who dreams of the stars," but "When Luke's family is killed, he must become a Jedi Knight and fight the evil empire."

            h. Make sure motivations of character actions are clear, and that every motivation has a trigger incident or plot shift. Avoid describing incidents in your book in which things just happen to your character. We need to care about this person, which means knowing why the character acts.

            i. Read it again, revise it again, read it again. Give this time! Run it by your favorite beta readers. Read it out loud to them and to yourself.

            j. The final version should be single spaced. Some people capitalize important characters' names, like this: "His little sister, GIANNA, discovers that a pregnant young girl was killed last year."
            Note that I didn't bother to name the dead girl for synopsis purposes. Try for no more than five or six capitalized names -- these are the characters who drive your story, not the sidekicks or minor obstacle people. I actually don't use this capitalized name trick myself, but still limit the number of names I mention in the synopsis.

The sales synopsis is not the plot of your novel. It's an impression of your book, like what you'd tell an interested stranger at a seaside resort in Corfu. Your interested stranger will probably have an attention span of about five minutes for someone else's story. So that's all you've got.

Since we're not the movie industry, I suggest avoiding tag lines like "It's Titanic meets The Wizard of Oz" or "It's Hogwarts in space." However, in your cover letter, you might want to point out a few well-known writers or books that your book is similar to. For example, in my cover letter for my current epic fantasy manuscript, I say, "somewhere between Lois McMaster Bujold and George R.R. Martin" when I'm talking about the level of violence of the story.

What if you've written a mega-epic like Song of Ice and Fire?
Just realize you can't tell us everything in a sales synopsis. A few more than two sentences might be needed for the logline, though. What about...

Undead warriors out of the legendary past threaten the Seven Kingdoms, but for the Stark and Lannister families, the struggle is to stay alive through intrigue, war, and betrayal. Ned Stark, an honorable man, and his children go south into danger, while exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen faces an arranged marriage to a barbarian leader across the Narrow Sea. Ned will discover treachery, while Daenerys finds the power to summon dragons.

Notice I left out all the Lannister subplots, Tyrion, Jon Snow, Arya, and the King. These things should come into the longer synopsis that follows the logline paragraph. Ned's story and Daenerys's story are the ones that kick off the plot complications (even though like many, I believe Tyrion to be the overall hero of the epic.) And yes, we'd have to tell how Ned dies, and all the rest of the horror in Book One, and we'd need to end the synopsis with a teaser for Book Two and an overview of the entire series.

Reading Recommendations:
for Working Synopsis and Reverse Outline Revision Synopsis:
Karen Wiesner, "First Draft in 30 Days"
Kirt Hickman, "Revising Fiction"
for story structure (to apply during revision)
Blake Snyder, "Save the Cat"
Donald Maass, "Writing the Breakout Novel"
Hilari Bell's Writing Tips, (includes synopsis info):

for sample synopses (mostly romance)
Charlotte Dillon's page:

and for queries:
Query Shark,

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