I suppose a subtitle for this subject could be: the writer’s bane.
Actually the synopsis is not the terror everyone claims it to be, it’s just a matter of thinking about your novel differently. However, when most writers find they must take their seventy-plus thousand word novel and cram the entire plot into one double-spaced page, they usually start having seizures.
So, everyone, take a long deep breath, get in touch with your inner peace, and let’s talk about [dramatic organ music, please] THE SYNOPSIS.
The first thing you have to understand is the synopsis is not meant to be a reflection of your prose. Remember, writing is a business and a synopsis is essentially a business proposal. When agents and editors say the synopsis is an example of your writing, they don’t mean the synopsis is an example of your ability to write fiction.
Agents and editors are looking at whether you know what your book is about and how well you can put forward ideas. If you can’t express yourself well with three hundred words, you won’t express yourself any better at ninety thousand.
Well! many authors exclaim, how can that silly agent-person possibly experience the greatness of my novel with one lousy page?
You will think your synopsis makes your novel sound trite and silly. Just get used to that idea right now. Agents are looking for the next sale, so if your synopsis states that your novel is about a teenaged protagonist who meets a vampire family and she falls in love with one of the vampires – whoops! In the trash in went. Why? Because that plot line and theme has been done to death (No pun intended. Okay, maybe a little one).
Agents and editors read the synopsis to acquire a general idea of your characters and plot. They don’t want to know about your sub-plots or minor characters, they don’t want to see dialogue, and they don’t want to see flowery language. Just the facts, Jack.
Some agents obviously feel they can intuit whether your writing is strong enough to carry a novel by reading a one page synopsis. Other agents will request three pages and some go as high as five. It depends on the agent, and since they aren’t uniform in their requests, I intend to write a one, three, and five page synopsis of my novel prior to soliciting agents. Yes, it is a monumental pain in the tuckus; however, being a writer is like any other occupation in that it’s not always one hundred percent fun all the time.
Yes, yes, yes, you say, but how does one inflict this monumental pain upon oneself?
Ah, my masochistic friends, I thought you’d never ask!
When you think of your novel in terms of the synopsis, you are stripping your story down to the bare essentials. Think about your novel as if it is a three act play. In Act I, you introduce your protagonist, your antagonist, and the trigger that starts your story. Act II will be about your protagonist’s struggle toward his/her goal. Act III will encompass the climax and the ending.
In a one page synopsis, you want to give only the barest details, so eliminate any characters that are not central to the main plot. Devote the first paragraph to Act I, the second paragraph to Act II, and the third to Act III.
Start by making a list of the pertinent facts that you need to convey in your synopsis. Who is your protagonist? Who is your antagonist? What is the essence of their conflict? If there is a secondary character that is absolutely essential to the plot, mention them. Condense the plot into one paragraph. Finally place your climax and the story’s ending in the third paragraph.
The first time a character’s name is mentioned, it should be in all capital letters. The synopsis should be double-spaced, and if you’re sending it via snail-mail, make sure you have your slug line in the header.
I think it’s easier to start with a one page synopsis and add details. Some of you may find that it’s easier to write a five page synopsis, then trim. That’s entirely up to you.
But, but, but, some of you scream, I write fantasy and/or science fiction and there’s a certain amount of world-building involved here!
Absolutely, and I’m sure that if the agent or editor you are soliciting accepts fantasy and/or science fiction submissions, they know that as well. This is probably another reason why you see some agents and editors will accept a three or five page synopsis rather than a one page synopsis.
In contrast, the romance genre has very specific guidelines so those agents and editors will prefer a one page synopsis showing only the characters and their conflicts.
Don’t worry if your synopsis goes over the one, three, or five page limit by a few sentences. The word police will not come to your house and shave your cat. However, if you go over the guidelines by a page or two or ten, you may have lost a sale.
I want to thank Lynda Gail Alfano for inspiring me to write on this topic, although, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to give her any help on her question. I’m like Lynda and wish all the agents and editors would get together and come up with standard guidelines. As it stands, I’m setting up a filing system, which will probably be a good subject for another post on another day.
A few links that might help:
“How to Write A Novel Synopsis” by Chuck on the Writers Digest site
“How to Write a Synopsis” by Marg GilKs
“How to Write a Synopsis” by Nathan Bransford
“Hunting for an Agent” by John E. Stith (with a sample synopsis and I highly recommend reading Mr. Stith’s article)
Copyright 2009 Teresa Frohock