Blogger: Mary Keeley
This week an author asked me to take a look at her synopsis and offer suggestions because she was struggling to get it right. She isn’t alone. I talk to writers all the time who say the synopsis is the most dreaded part of a proposal, but it’s less confusing when they understand the important relationship between their story arcs and the synopsis. These four tips will show you.
Get off to a good start.
In the first paragraphs introduce the main character and a likeable trait, her inner struggle (emotional arc) that affects how she is viewing the mainStory arc2 problem (conflict) and why she needs to overcome it (motivation). In a romance, you need the same introduction for the hero too. If you don’t make the agent or editor care about the protagonist and what happens to her, they’ll know readers won’t either.
Stick to the main plot.
Some editors go straight to the synopsis when they pick up a proposal because it reveals a lot about the writer’s craft. They want to see the main character’s weaknesses, how and when you introduce each new obstacle that moves the plot forward and how it causes your character(s) to rise above it in a believable way and grow emotionally as a result. If they can’t follow this progression easily, your proposal may be on its way to the rejection pile.
Don’t get sidetracked.
Veering off into sub-plots, as interesting as they might be, disrupts the forward progression. Think of how three strands of hair cross over first one and then the other—layer over layer—until your braid is neatly tied off at the end. No stray ends, no added strands that make it messy.
Every word counts.
The synopsis for an 80,000- to 100,000-word novel must explain your story in about four pages or around 1,200 words. This means every word must earn its right to be included. Hunt for the strongest, perfect verbs and adjectives. Some authors like to draw a line down a piece of paper, listing the main crisis, the character’s emotional arc, and the motivation in the beginning of the book at the top of the page and how the main character has changed as a result of her motivation to overcome the main crisis at the bottom. When they name the smaller crises in chronological order down the page, they have a visual skeleton of the plot. Then they add a word or two that identifies the motivation and character’s growth at each one. Whatever method you use to map out your synopsis, it should help to ensure everything is present that should be and nothing more.
What do you like least about writing a synopsis? What didn’t you know about the important relationship between your story arcs and the synopsis? How many drafts does it usually take you to get the synopsis right? Do you write your synopsis before you start your manuscript or when it’s finished?
Here are four tips for writing a synopsis that will impress agents and editors. Click to Tweet.
The important relationship between your story arcs and the synopsis explained here. Click to Tweet.
“Every word counts.”
*This is my mantra for all my writing–even work emails. My inner self often screams, “Get to the point!” as I scroll through my inbox. So many words, so little substance.
*What you have here, Mary, is great advice for all communication.
Every word counts indeed, Shirlee…the wrong words can turn a life, even unintentionally.
* In October, 1944, during the liberation of the Philippines, Adm. William Halsey’s Fast Carrier Task Force was drawn away from the landing beaches on Samar, when a Japanese force containing the last few big aircraft carriers the Japanese possessed was sighted. He left a group of escort carriers and destroyers to provide air cover and otherwise guard the beaches, thinking the threat was minimal.
* Unfortunately, the Japanese carrier force (which was largely devoid of aeroplanes) was bait, and a large Japanese surface force appeared amidst the shrunken American landing fleet, expecting to do great execution…and were driven off by the almost lunatic courage of American destroyer captains who went straight for the best battleships and cruisers the Japanese had left. At a terrible cost, the Japanese were convinced that they could not win, and retreated.
* Halsey, meanwhile, was running north, and when the action off Samar was first reported, a message was sent from Adm, Nimitz, commander of the pacific forces, asking just where Halsey was?
* The unfortunate thing was that messages were prefaced and ended with ‘padding’, nonsense phrases to make cryptanalysis harder. In this case, after the “where are you?” message was sent, the padding was the unfortunate phrase “the world wonders”.
* It was chosen at random, but had a terrible effect on a brave and dedicated man, and that accident of words stayed with William Halsey to the end of his days, fifteen years later.
Wow, Andrew. I had no idea about this WW2 story. It illustrates well the need for concise and accurate word choice!
My husband had told me about that situation but not the random words “the world wonders. Wow this is a powerful consideration! I’m glad you shared this!
So true, Shirlee.
I enjoy writing synopses. It’s a different sort of writing, a different craft, and often quite a challenge.
* One of the best things about the synopsis is, as you mentioned, that it can illuminate flaws in the story and character arcs; my synopses are written when the MS is ‘complete’ (after several drafts), but they have always shown the need for more revision.
* The interesting thing (and what I LEAST like) about synopsis-writing is that it takes me back to the days of writing expository paragraphs in grammar school, wearing the scratchy slacks and abrasive collar, and the Master prowling the aisles, slapping his steel-backed ruler softly, softly against his leg.
Yes, that’s one of the advantages of writing the synopsis after the book is complete. Your vivid description and choice of words in relating your grammar school class gave me a knowing chuckle, but obviously it isn’t a fond memory for you. Maybe playing joyful music while you write synopses will drown it out. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
Things go better with the synopsis if I go way back to the bare bones skeleton that I used to first plot out the book.
Always a good plan, Kristen.
I’m not too scared of writing a synopsis. I learned some good tips from Susan May Warren. Your suggestions here enrich what she shared with me. I love the idea of drawing a line down a paper and listing the crises and the main characters (and their changes). That can give a good complete picture of the story and make it easier to know where to focus when you write the synopsis.
*I always write a synopsis, or tell myself the story, before I write a word in the book. It helps me stay focused on where the story is going. If I have the big picture, it gives me room to play and be creative in the actual writing. 🙂
Jeanne, I like the line-down-the-paper method, too, because of the added advantage that you can see where there is something missing or a place in the book that needs more tension to keep the readers engaged.
Mary, a 4-5 page synopsis, is that single-spaced or double-spaced? 1200 words would seem to suggest double-spaced. This really helps me … and helps me see that I have some refining to do. Thank you.
Shelli, good question. I forgot to mention that detail. We usually estimate about 300 words per single-spaced page, using a 12-point font and 1-inch margins. Thus the 1,200 words for four pages. This is a guideline.
Excellent. This is constructive. I.see why the synopsis is so important.
I’m glad it’s helpful for you, Norma.
I started out writing the entire novel and grumbling all the way through the synopsis process. Then I tried ‘telling myself the story,’ as Jeanne mentioned, and that worked quite well. Now when I begin a new manuscript, I write out as much of a synop as I can. It acts as a springboard, and I add to it as I go. Side note: I have found freedom in reminding myself that just because I wrote something in a synop, doesn’t mean I chiseled it in stone. I can change things. I’m the author! Sheesh.
Amen, Davalynn. Because if you are like me … things tend to change, surprising things happen … “just because I wrote something in a synop, doesn’t mean I chiseled it in stone” … love that. On my next work, I’ll definitely be writing my synopsis the best I can beforehand. When you write it afterwards, it’s like you’ve carried busted grocery bags into the house after a long overdue shopping trip. And then in exhaustion, though you accomplished much, you’ve got to go pick up the items that fell out. I may be exaggerating a bit, but it doesn’t feel fun. 🙂
“…just because I wrote something in a synod, doesn’t mean I chiseled it in stone. I can change things.” Great point, Davalynn. Whether done at the beginning or the end, getting the skeleton down is helpful.
Another helpful post, Mary. Appreciate the way you made every word count. 🙂 I, too, like the idea of drawing a line down the paper to illustrate key character/story points. As usual, Books & Such offers us another excellent resource. 🙂
That’s our goal, Micky. I’m glad to know you found it helpful.
Synopsis first. It’s part of the plotting process. At the end of the book, I may need to revise it, but at least I have something with which to work. Great tips, Mary. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Meghan. So far, yours makes three strong votes for writing the synopsis first. I think the “firsters” are in the majority at this point. The “lasters” haven’t spoken up as firmly as you.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I read or heard somewhere to use a concise line for each chapter, thus condensing the book into a managable synopsis.
Soooo, depending on a certain reaction from someone, the person who gave me that advice is either hired, or fired.
Of course, that would involve me remembering where I acquired the information.
And yes, I am TOO CHICKEN to open the synopsis and see just how bad it is…
Jennifer, if you can communicate the forward changes in all three arcs for every scene within a chapter in one line, you are extraordinary. 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Mary, I did some editing for you…you’re welcome in advance.
“Jennifer, you are extraordinary.”
Annnnnnnd back to work…
Mary, I always outline my manuscript after it’s complete. This process identifies structural problems (as in chapters that need to be split because they are much longer than others), and highlights timing errors and events that might have shifted out of order. This final outline makes the synopsis easier to write because important story elements jump out, supporting material fades, and the story arc is clear.
Thanks for this post; synopses are such a beast!
You’re welcome, Norma. That’s one sound vote for writing the synopsis when the manuscript is complete.
The diagram you included in this post is helpful. The next thing I’ll be doing is comparing my synopsis with the points. I believe it will be helpful for me to write the synopsis before the rough draft of the next book.
I’m glad the diagram is helpful, Shelia. The one thing it doesn’t show, though, are the smaller crises/obstacles that propel the story and plot forward between points B and C. They need to appear in a synopsis to show editors the forward momentum.
Tweeted, pinned, shared on FB, looking for a suitable frame and spot on the wall for in the office. 😉 Thanks for another helpful guide, Mary. Synopses remind me a bit of taking medicine as a child—icky, and the taste stays in your mouth for a long, long time.
Interesting that I was just thinking about this today, and here you have posted a wonderful guide through the whole process I was considering undertaking! Thank you!
For my first book, which is almost finished, I am writing the synopsis after, but for my next projects I will be starting with the synopsis. I think starting this way will help keep my writing focused and more time efficient.
Hi Mary Keeley, this was informative and helpful! I find that when I’m writing a synopsis that it is a truly helpful process. It also reveals when there is more work to be done in the story. Thank you for this blog post!