Synopsis-writing 101, part V: stretching your limbs…well, a little

So far in this series, I’ve been going over prepping a synopsis for tucking inside a query envelope, adding to the partial an agent has requested that you send, plopping into a contest entry, or having at the ready in anticipation for such a request at a pitch meeting. For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis, which is essentially a written-down verbal pitch.

The summary part of a pitch, anyway. A 1-page synopsis needs to be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake to do all that within a single page in standard format, right?

By contrast, the 5-page novel synopsis — which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages.

Why? To make the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller.”

Again, piece of cake, right?

Don’t shrug, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready WELL before you anticipate needing it. Especially if you are intending to query or pitch at a conference anytime soon. As I MAY have mentioned before, you will be SUBSTANTIALLY happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

(Wait — I have nagged you some time in the recent past about prepping an author bio, haven’t I? Off to check the archives…oh, dear; it’s been quite some time. Perhaps, after I polish off this series and take that long-anticipated plunge back into craft for at least a few weeks, I shall take another run at it.)

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

If you take nothing else away from this series, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t.

Yes, you read that correctly: even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Or, to return to our list of goals from a few days back:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “what you’re suggesting sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and summarizing the book!”

Not really — not if you winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens. If you’re having trouble doing that — and at the risk of sounding like your last English literature teacher — set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment and think about its themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

I’m quite serious about this. Asking yourself the scant handful of questions that would turn up on an exam will help you identify the essentials. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.) To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh?

(b) What does s/he want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist achieve this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

They should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the ending. Too many aspiring writers do this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent the agency screener and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away.”

To professional eyes, this is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page or two.

Why? Well, from their point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis, after all, is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, in practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. Either, they surmise:

a) the synopsis’ author isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little. In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied. Next!

c) the synopsis’ author is probably one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market. The wily fiend!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel. Again, next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it.

They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

And yes, I do seem to have cake on my mind today, but for very good reason: tomorrow is my birthday. (And Truman Capote’s, as it happens.) I’m going to sign off for now, so I have time to pen a little treat for you all to have tomorrow while I am blowing out my candles.

How many? That’s for my memoir’s publishers to know, and you to find out if the legal issues around it are ever resolved. Keep up the good work!

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