The not-so gentle art of the synopsis

Zoë Sharp

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I find writing a synopsis the most difficult part of being a writer. But it’s also the most vital.

Even if you’re a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer, who sets out with an idea and runs with it until the end, you may still have to produce a synopsis after the event, in order to sell your masterpiece to a publisher.

If you go searching the subject, you’ll find almost too many websites, blog sites and articles to count. I’ve been hunting around and tried to come up with a general consensus of the advice that’s out there. Please feel free to add, contradict or explain your own theories!

If you’re a plotter to begin with, then you will probably already have the original outline you used as the backbone of your story. If you’re anything like me, though, by the time you’ve finished it will be covered in crossings-out and pencil alterations. So, your first job is to produce a clean, accurate outline.

I go through my manuscript as I’m writing and do a summary of each chapter or scene. A few lines, an idea of who’s doing what, and what might be happening behind the scenes to be picked up later. This is more for my own consumption than anyone else’s, however. It will not make the story sound particularly exciting, but it’s extremely useful when it comes to edits, because I can make my alterations to the summary and then transfer them to the manuscript itself.

But, I also write the jacket copy synopsis. This gives me a tight view of the book as a whole, and reminds me of the thrust of the story. The jacket copy synopsis I wrote for DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten, is this:

In the sweating heat of Louisiana, former Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, faces her toughest challenge yet.

Professionally, she’s at the top of her game, but her personal life is in ruins. Her lover, bodyguard Sean Meyer, has woken from a gunshot-induced coma with his memory in tatters. It seems that piecing back together the relationship they shared is proving harder for him than relearning the intricacies of the close-protection business.

Working with Sean again was never going to be easy for Charlie, either, but a celebrity fundraising event in aid of still-ravaged areas of New Orleans should have been the ideal opportunity for them both to take things nice and slow.

Until, that is, they find themselves thrust into the middle of a war zone.

When an ambitious robbery explodes into a deadly hostage situation, the motive may be far more complex than simple greed. Somebody has a major score to settle, and Sean is part of the reason. Only trouble is, he doesn’t remember why.

And when Charlie finds herself facing a nightmare from her own past, she realises she can’t rely on Sean to watch her back. This time, she’s got to fight it out on her own.

One thing’s for certain, though. No matter how overwhelming the odds stacked against her, or however hopeless the situation may appear, Charlie is never going to die easy.

A taster, yes, but this is NOT really a description of exactly what happens in the book, so not really a synopsis in its true sense. But at the same time it’s relatively simple, it mentions only two characters by name, so it’s not too confusing, and it gives you a pretty reasonable idea of who, what, where, why, and the conflicts faced by the main character, both physical and emotional. Plus the present-tense gives it an immediacy and impact.

At the beginning I include the detail about Charlie because I never assume people know the character. And I make sure I include the word ‘her’ so people don’t get confused from the start that she’s a woman.

But to take this and turn it into the kind of synopsis I could show to a publisher means a LOT more work.

For me, the main jobs of a synopsis are to get across the following:

The theme.

The basic elements of the plot and what makes it different from other, possibly similar storylines the editor’s seen before. And NEVER say ‘and there’s this great twist ending’ without actually telling them what the ending is. They’re the experts. They’ll decide if it’s great or another cliché they’ve seen a million times before.

The attraction of the protagonist to a jaded reader.

If the subject or setting is topical or different or otherwise interesting.

To show that the writer can put together a good story, and write it in a stylish and gripping way.

So, to this end a synopsis should include the following:

The Hook―why is this book worth reading?

The Characters―what are their motivations, their emotions and the crises that challenge them?

The Story―told in a brief but enthusiastic way, as you’d describe a great movie you just saw to a friend who you’re trying to convince to go and see it. What happens, how the characters react, and what are the after-effects. Not, ‘the bad guys robbed the bank and then the good guys caught them, the end’.

The Climax―the event at which the protagonist overcomes or succumbs.

The Resolution.

But this is not often one linear story. There are different elements that have to be considered and combined. First is the basic story itself:

What’s the incident or action that kicks the whole thing into motion?

What are the main events that put obstacles into the path of the protagonist?

What is the climax to the story?

What is the resolution to the story? Not the same as the climax. The climax could be the big fight scene on a sinking riverboat on the Mississippi. The resolution is what happens once the characters get back to New York and events have had time to hit home.

Then there’s your protagonist’s story:

Who is he/she? What drives them. What do they want―or want to avoid―and what’s preventing them from achieving this?

What situation or incident brings about change in their life?

How are they affected by the events of the book?

What is the ongoing effect on the protagonist’s life at the end?

And, of course, the story of your other characters:

Who is the antagonist―what do they want?

How do they attempt to achieve their goals and what obstacles to they put in the path of the protagonist in order to do so?

Are they changed by the events of the story, or do they bring about change in the protagonist because of their actions?

The relationships within the story:

What are they at the start?

How do they develop or change during the course of the book?

How are they tested, changed or broken by the climax?

How are they different at the end?

And finally, people get hung up on the length of a synopsis. Brief is good, but not if it makes the thing boring. Better to go to two pages and grab somebody than stick to one and send them to sleep. Theme and effects are more important, I feel, than a blow-by-blow of the action. The main events should be enough.

Use readable font size rather than trying to squeeze as much in as possible by going to 6pt. Single or double spacing? I always use 1.5, but that’s personal preference. Some people also advocate putting a character’s name in capitals the first time it appears. Again, this is personal preference, but I would make sure that character is always described the same way throughout. Not by first name, profession, and then surname―too confusing.

 And just in case this has left you eager to put together a brief story of your own, I’m very pleased to mention the Flashbang Flash Fiction Competition 2013. Sponsored by CrimeFest. £2 entry free. 150 words maximum. Deadline March 1st 2013. First prize is two free passes to CrimeFest. Shortlisted and winning stories published online. Full details here.

This week’s Word of the Week is deus ex Meccano, which is a kit of metal bits and pieces which allows you to construct the ending to your book :))

16 thoughts on “The not-so gentle art of the synopsis

  1. Sarah W

    A two page synopsis doesn't give me too much trouble, but i have a terrible time working out shorter ones.

    How do you deal when an agent or editor only wants a "couple of paragraphs"?

  2. Alaina

    The two-sentence synopsis, posted by Arthur Wells, really helped me (I'll link at the end.) At one point, he gives a two-sentence starter, which I'll quote:

    "Hero finds herself stuck in situation from which she wants to free herself. Can she achieve goal, or will villain stop her and cause her to experience disaster?"

    I spent about three hours trying to figure out what hero/situation/goal/disaster would be, exactly. But once I had those two sentences, it took about 30 minutes to expand it into a page I'm almost proud of (and my critique partners assure me is good).

  3. Ronald Tierney

    I don't write with an outline either. I don't mind writing a few paragraphs that, in effect, work in same way as flap copy. I try to answer why anyone might want to read it. But some publishers ask for outlines and/or longer descriptions. I rarely do it. But your suggestions are fantastic. Maybe I'll reconsider.

  4. Seeley James

    I've never had a problem writing a synopsis, but people sure have trouble comprehending them. I always thought it was the fact that I'm surrounded by Philistines. I gave up and hired pros to write them for me (professional philistines, scads of them in the phone book).

    This is the best how-to I've ever read. I might even give it a try! Thanks Ms Sharp!

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    I think then you need to go back to describing a movie to a friend. Think of your book as a movie. What’s the least you can say about it that would give him/her a flavour but still encourage them to give it a try? Practice with your favourite movies or TV shows, then give it a whirl with your novel. Or try the jacket copy approach, maybe?

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alaina
    I hadn’t come across the Mike Wells piece on how to write a short synopsis — maybe that would have helped me! I suggest an alternative to the ‘experience disaster’ bit, I think. There will be conflict, and there will be change because of it, but not necessarily disaster as such.

    And I’ve come across that alternative synopsis for The Wizard of Oz before, but it’s a great one, isn’t it?

    “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three total strangers to kill again.”

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Ronald
    I confess that my publisher went to contract on the jacket copy outline for DIE EASY, plus the opening three chapters, so never asked for a longer outline. But I may have to produce something for the supernatural thriller, and for other new projects. Who knows?

    Good luck with your synopsis’ing, though!

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Seeley
    Thank you. And LOL on the writing versus comprehending problem. I think it really is one of the hardest parts of the job, but I also think this method might make constructing the initial story easier, as well as summarising it for commercial purposes afterwards 🙂

  9. Keith B Walters

    Great advice – many thanks, Zoe.

    I just wish I'd had all that great information before I signed, sealed and mailed a recent entry ;(

    Oh well, at least I have all that wonderful advice in time for the Debut Dagger *looks at calendar* just !

  10. Reine

    Oh god, I am completely lost. Is this the sort of thing you see on a book jacket, or is it something you write to help yourself write the book? I didn't wander into a class, did I? Because I will flunk. I can tell that right away. I think I'll just audit, ok?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    Sorry! Didn't mean to be confusing. It's a bit of both, but when I'm writing an outline for my own purposes I need to know all these elements and then combine them into one plot – making sure it logically explains how my first-person main character could have found out everything or seen it first-hand. But it's also aimed at producing a synopsis to present to an agent or publisher that sells the idea of your story to it's best, most exciting advantage.

    Erm, does that help at all …? 🙁

  12. Reine

    Thanks, Zoë. It does help, lots! I'm not very sophisticated about writing fiction, yet. I like the way the method tracks the logic for your characters. I'm starting to get sold on the idea of, at least, creating an outline of what I am writing, if not to right from an outline. 🙂

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