Lots of various colored cumulus this morning along with sun breaks. I never heard of sun breaks until I moved here--but it's a term that inspires hope. One of my Facebook pals has received a request for a full manuscript and synopsis. With his suffering in mine (his message to me read HELP!) I'm posting some suggestions for writing a synopsis here.
Dread is normal
First, if you’re not fond of writing a synopsis, this doesn’t strike me as abnormal. After all, you’re summarizing about 400 pages into the briefest possible form while introducing the major players and situation and somehow leaving no questions unanswered, while not disclosing everything that happens in the story. A synopsis is part bare bones of your story (however, not too bare), part pitch, and part illustration of your writing style. And every sentence matters and pushes the story forward.
Typically a synopsis completes a sales package that includes your first three chapters and sometimes a letter of introduction. Since at times editors read the synopsis first, it must be comprehensive, comprehensible, and compelling, forcing them to then peruse your chapters.Your synopsis will be read not only by an agent and editor, but if it passes muster, the marketing and art department will read it too. A synopsis will also be used in the publishing house meetings where decisions are made about what titles will be published in an upcoming season. In your synopsis these professionals want to see a thoughtful writer at work—one who has crafted an enthralling story, with a gripping main conflict and intriguing motivations in the main players. They also want to understand how the story moves logically from the inciting incident in the opening chapters to the end, with major plot points and turning points along the way.
These days there seems to me no grand consensus on the ideal length of a synopsis. If you’ve written a saga, chance are you might weigh in at 10 pages or more and if you’ve written a fairly simple tale, you might get away with a one-page shorty. Since most agents and editors are notoriously pressed for time and read so much for their jobs, the five page synopsis is appreciated by most. However, in the past the wisdom about length went like this: one double-spaced page of synopsis for each 10,000 manuscript words. If you wrote an 80,000 word manuscript you'd write an 8 page synopsis.
If you’re new to the task of synopsis writing you might want to read the back cover copy on your favorite paperback novels and the inside jacket of hard cover novels. Notice how enticing the copy is and how the story question is revealed. Notice too the verbs and the level of specific detail. Then make a list of all the major characters and events that you need to include in your synopsis.
Start your synopsis with a hook—as in When JAMES MALCOLM, an insurance adjuster, awoke in a strange basement wearing women's clothing, he knows it won’t be an ordinary day, but could scarcely have imagined that the clothes he wore belonged to MELINDA DAVIS who had been recently murdered. Wrongly suspected of her murder, Malcolm is forced to discover who murdered Davis and why and why he was fingered for the crime.
Write in the present tense and the first time you introduce a character, type his or her name in all caps. A synopsis is written in the same order as the novel and is written in the style and tone of the manuscript—a witty, fast-paced novel requires a witty, fast-paced synopsis. If the story is literary, your synopsis will be more serious, but keep in mind that your dazzling prose goes into the manuscript, not the synopsis. Don’t leave major questions unanswered such as who killed the victim, as well as how Malcolm solves his internal conflict, and how the subplot was resolved after he lost his job when he was arrested. A synopsis keeps the reader’s interest, but it’s not a tease and is not written with cliff hangers and such devices. It’s particularly important to demonstrate that your ending provides a satisfying conclusion to the plot and ties up loose ends.
A synopsis demonstrates that your characters are in jeopardy and what is at stake and why this matters. It introduces your main characters and their conflicts and agendas. It is not a list of characters or character sketches, and it usually does not describe physical attributes of characters, although the main characters are given some sort of tag. For example, you might want to refer to a character as the leading citizen in a small Southern town, or a respected doctor or frustrated novelist. Antagonists are always introduced, but secondary characters are mentioned only if they are involved with the protagonist’s inner or outer conflict. A synopsis is also written with a careful attention to flow—ideas follow each other logically and one paragraph leads to the next. This means that transitions will be important in connecting the dots.
As for the format, use 1 inch margins on all sides and don’t justify the right margin. On the first page in the upper right hand corner write Synopsis. The next line is Genre: (with your story type followed on the next line by Word count: with the number of words. Type your name and contact information on the top left hand margin. All this information is single spaced. Don’t number your first page, but scroll down to about one third of the page and center your title in all caps. Then leave four lines after the title and begin with your hook. After the first page use a header or slug line on the upper left hand corner that looks like this: MORRELL/DOOMED FOR DEATH/Synopsis. The page number goes in the upper right on the same line as the header.
Now, here’s where things get a bit sticky. Some experts claim that a synopsis should be single-spaced, some suggest double-spacing. Jack and Glenda Neff and Don Prues, authors of Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, suggest double spacing. The best rule of thumb is that if the synopsis is over two pages, double space; if it’s one or two pages, single space. Do not use fancy fonts. While you might want to include one or two short dialogue exchanges to illustrate a point, generally don’t quote long passages of dialogue or excerpts from the manuscript. You’re summarizing, not copying. Also, when you introduce a new scene or plot twist, begin a new paragraph.
Finally, here’s a checklist that you might want to use to verify that you’ve covered all these points:
Have you printed it out and then edited it for spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes?
- Does the opening paragraph contain a hook that raises a question and forces the reader to keep reading?
- Does the synopsis prove that the story is based around a single, dramatic question?
Have you shown the protagonist taking charge of events, making choices and decisions, but also stumbling and dealing with internal conflict?
- Have you introduced your main characters and defined their conflicts, desires, and motivations?
- Are the protagonist’s dominant traits demonstrated?
- Have you covered the major scenes and plot points?Are reversals, twists and surprises depicted?
- Is the setting and timeframe of the story clear?
- Does the synopsis include the places in the story where the protagonist changes?
- If your characters are changing, are you briefly explaining why?
- Have you shown the protagonist’s darkest moment that comes near the end of the story?
- Does he or she hit bottom or is there a moment of truth?
- Are emotional or internal changes evident during this dark moment?
- Is the ending revealed and does it clarify how the main conflicts are resolved?
- Have you briefly explain what the protagonist has won or lost?