As indie authors publishing our own books, with no need to pitch them to query agents and trade publishers, we may think we have no need to write them. But it's still a good discipline to help you check the plot and structure of your book while you're writing it, and afterwards to identify the unique qualities of your book to inform your marketing campaign. ALLi Partner member Richard Bradburn, managing editor of editorial.ie, provides a helpful definition of the synopsis and expert advice on how to write one – and some of his tips may surprise you. (“Tell, don't show” – wow!)
The synopsis – saving the hardest task till last
A common problem for authors who are ready to submit to agents and publishers is the necessity (usually) to supply a synopsis. They’ve done all the hard work, written the book, gone through repeated revisions and rewrites, given it to betareaders, got some feedback and revised further, and hopefully had some editing done. Now the industry throws this last hurdle in front of them.
It doesn’t help that writing a synopsis demands a totally different skillset and approach to the book, and is notoriously difficult.
Here are some techniques for writing a synopsis, and tips for taking the sting out of this task.
What is a synopsis anyway?
A synopsis is an outline of your entire novel, from beginning to end, summarising the narrative arc of the book and one or two of the major characters in it. It does include the end (any twists or climactic revelations), but doesn’t include details of every sub-plot and minor character – it doesn’t need to be comprehensive.
The aim is to give the reader a thorough understanding of the outline of your book, without going in to too much detail.
When should I write it?
Writing a synopsis is a great exercise to undertake after you’ve finished the first draft of your book. Because it encourages you to look more analytically at your book’s structure, it can suggest to you at an early stage of the rewriting process that there are perhaps flaws in your plot or character arcs that otherwise might remain until a developmental editor pointed them out.
It can be used as a great tool, therefore, for kicking off a round of self-editing.
How long should it be?
Most synopses are one single-spaced page (about 500 words). If querying an agent or publisher, check whether they have any specific length or format requirements in their submission guidelines. Do not submit a two-page double-spaced synopsis in Lucida Calligraphy font to an agent asking for a single page in single-spaced Times New Roman. Yes, you’re trying to sell your book, but also yourself as a competent author who is going to be a pleasure to work with, remember. If you can manage it, write a single page synopsis. You can always expand it if given the leeway.
Where do I begin?
It’s a good idea to start with a strong paragraph that outlines the entire story in essence. For plot-driven books, that’s a thumbnail of the whole plot. For character driven novels, it should be a summary of the main character arc. Most people know the story of Star Wars:
“A cruel and evil Empire dominates the universe. Luke Skywalker, a farmhand on a remote planet, joins the rebellion to overthrow the Empire and restore freedom to the galaxy.”
What am I trying to do with a synopsis?
Don’t forget what you’re trying achieve. There are four key elements. You're trying to demonstrate:
- an original and entertaining premise
- a compelling main character
- interesting and perhaps topical subject matter
- a good plot that doesn’t rely on insane coincidence or acts of god for its resolution
(and he woke up and it was all a dream!)
What should I include?
You need to include the main character(s), what their opening situation/problem is, what inciting incident happens to start the ball rolling, what they need to achieve as a result of this event, what the forces or characters opposing their aims and ambitions are, how the crisis is resolved and how the characters have changed by the end of the book.
What should I not include?
Much description at all
- Any dialogue, unless the understanding of a key plot point depends on it
- Sub-plots that don’t really determine the progress of the main plot
- Minor characters' names and backstory
- Sub-headings – this isn’t a management summary or a powerpoint presentation
- Unanswered or rhetorical questions.
The aim with a synopsis is not to entice a reader to buy your book, but to explain to an agent why they might be able to sell it. They won’t know if they can sell it if they don’t know what it’s about.
Any stylistic tips?
The temptation might be to create not much more than a bullet point list of plot points:
“This happened, which really ruined Hero’s day. Because of this, Hero had to try and do this, but Bad Guy wasn’t having any of that. After a fight with Bad Guy, Hero eventually won out and managed to do what he needed to do.”
No. Although it’s just a synopsis, it still needs to show that you’ve some talent as a writer. Unless the characters are bland and emotionless (in which case you have other problems), you need to convey some of the emotion that drives their thoughts and actions to do the things that they do.
It’s an idea borrowed from screenplays to include the name of main characters in caps on the first instance, identifying that character as significant to the story.
Don’t try and explain the underlying theme to the story, if there is one. The agent should, hopefully, be literate enough to recognise that your book is a light-hearted but profound examination of the human condition, as told through the eyes of a one-legged, transsexual ferry captain on the Dover-Calais route.
In a synopsis, you can throw all that “show, don’t tell” advice out of the window.
Showing is wordy. Telling is economical.
If your main character has a problem with authority, you don’t need to describe a lengthy scene where they ‘disrespect’ the headmaster.
Synopses don’t need to be written in the past tense, even if your book is. A synopsis written in present tense can be more vivid and compelling in many ways. At any event, use active language, not passive, and keep sentences punchy and informative, not long and rambling.
OVER TO YOU Do you have any advice to add to Richard's list? Any questions for him to answer? Join the conversation via the comments box!#Indie #authors - how to write a synopsis and why you need one, even when #selfpublishing - top tips from @editoreditorial's Richard Bradburn for #ww Click To Tweet
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