Every Writer’s Nightmare (or, How to Write a Synopsis)

Few things make a writer groan more than the word synopsis. 

I still remember my first encounter with the s-word, back when I finished my novel Eolyn and started the long arduous task of submissions. It seemed an insult, somehow, that anyone should demand I write a less-than-3000-word version of a story that clearly took 120,000 words to tell properly.  I mean, really. Who did these submissions editors think they were?

I’ve come a long way, I like to think, since those first rather botched attempts at writing a synopsis. And I have some good news for all my fellow synopsis haters: You don’t need a fantastic synopsis in order to land a publisher. The synopses that I wrote for Eolyn were not very good. Still, Hadley Rille Books took pity on me. Or, more likely, they saw some detail in that first synopsis that piqued their interest enough to ask for the opening chapters of my manuscript, and eventually to offer me a contract.

My personal anecdote aside, the better your synopsis is, the better your chances at reaching that next step in the submissions process, the request for a full. Your skills as a writer need to shine in that synopsis. The events of your novel should come through with the same passionate intensity that generated the 120,000 words it took to tell everything properly in the first place.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany on synopsis writing. I’ve decided to share some of those insights here, in hopes that they’ll help other authors come to terms with this dreaded task.

My first and most important epiphany: If I hate writing this, everyone else is going to hate reading it. 

What we feel at the time we write comes through in our prose, whether we are telling an adventure story for our kids or finishing that interim report at work. If you despise sitting down in front of the computer and grinding out that synopsis, that resentment will come through in your writing. So the first challenge is to figure out how to make writing the synopsis fun for you. If you can answer that question (and it’s likely to be a somewhat different answer for every author out there), then you can probably skip the rest of what I have to say. Everything else that follows is my personal answer to this same question: How can I make synopsis writing fun for me?

Focus on characters, not on events. This is, coincidentally, also a basic rule of teaching history. The boring history classes are the ones where we have to memorize timelines. The interesting history classes allow us to discover the personalities behind the events, the real men and women who lived, hoped, struggled, and died during the times given to them. An editor does not want to read a chronology any more than you want to write one. So instead of listing what happened when, emphasize the people in your story: who they are, their hopes and dreams, and how circumstances lead them to decisions, actions, and consequences. Believe me, this makes the synopsis so much easier. You will feel like you are sitting down with your characters again, having coffee and chatting over old times, going through family albums, and the like. No one wants their life story summarized in a list of dates and events. Remember this when writing about the journey of your characters.

You don’t need to include everyone. In fantasy, this is a particular challenge. Fantasy worlds typically have oodles of characters, and even minor ones can play important roles. But your synopsis doesn’t have room for them all. Keep a tight focus on your protagonist(s) and only include the bare essentials of all those other characters involved in their lives. Yes, this means certain threads won’t make it into your synopsis, but that’s okay. What the editor wants to see is the primary conflict, and the character arcs of those directly involved in this conflict.

Events don’t necessarily need to be in exactly the same order as they are in the novel. I didn’t understand this until fairly late in the game, but it’s an important flexibility to have. The structure of the synopsis can be slightly different from the structure of the novel. The order of certain scenes and events may need to be tweaked for better flow, in order to facilitate the communication of a lot of information in a very condensed space.

Make sure to include the ending! Not a new revelation at all, but I see this piece of advice repeated a lot, so I’ll do the same here. Do not leave the submissions editor hanging. It’s important that he or she understand, by the end of your synopsis, that you know how to bring a big messy conflict to a clean and satisfying ending. Everything you write in the synopsis should flow neatly into the summary of that final chapter.

Go ahead! Use your favorite lines. All of us have sparkle moments in our novels, places where we were particularly connected to our muse and the words came out just perfectly. Find a way to weave these sparkle moments into your synopsis, in the same way a movie trailer gives us a sampling of the most exciting scenes of a movie. The synopsis is an opportunity to let your best moments as a writer shine.

Okay. That’s my advice. I hope it’s helpful. If anyone out there has ideas and suggestions to add, fire away! If not, go back to working on that amazing (and fun!) synopsis. Good luck!

4 thoughts on “Every Writer’s Nightmare (or, How to Write a Synopsis)

  1. Great advice here, Karin. I will add to this that the easiest and most exciting synopsis I ever wrote was for a novel I hadn’t even written yet. Talk about sticking to yhe main characters and arcs. Whew! It’s all I had. Of course, a few things have changed considering I only had about ten thousand words of a first draft written when I sold it, but those are easy tweaks. If I can add the advice, try writing your synopsis before you write the book. Not only will it give you a concise piece of work as a first stab at the final, but it focuses the book as a whole before you ever begin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really good advice. It occurred to me while I was putting together this post that a lot of writers might not bother with the synopsis anymore, as many are opting for the self-publishing route and don’t deal with the submissions process. But the truth is, writing the synopsis helps you tighten up your prose and understand your novel from a different perspective, and this is useful for all writers, no matter what publishing route they take. And it’s more interesting, in my mind, than writing a plot outline.

      Like

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