Honing Your Synopsis Skills

The most challenging, hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing piece of work you create as a writer is also your most single most important selling tool.

If you haven’t taken the time yet to sit down and apply all your creative talents to crafting a killer synopsis, grab a chair and start right now. No matter how fabulous your book is, no matter how witty and clever or emotionally moving, you won’t sell it until you can convey those facets to an editor in a clear synopsis. If you have a slew of sales under your belt, you know too well how much relies on your synopsis. When you sell on proposal, it’s imperative that all the elements of your story are laid our succinctly. No matter that your editor trusts your judgment and loves how you put together a synopsis…she could leave in two months. We all need to keep our synopsis writing skills finely honed and fresh.

Which Comes First?

If you have already written your book and now need to write the synopsis, fine. But if you haven’t written the book yet, start crafting your synopsis before you begin chapter one. Why? A sound synopsis helps focus your writing efforts, providing you with a clear road map of where you’re headed.

Not to mention, the synopsis is just plain easier to put together before you have the full-fledged book in your head to muddy the waters. After writing the book, you may find it more difficult to pick and choose which scenes warrant inclusion in your synopsis, whereas before you write it, your rough mental outline is about all the detail you’ll want to incorporate.

Length and Format

There are many different approaches to developing the synopsis and there are several different lengths that editors (or agents, or contests) request. The length of the synopsis you are allowed to submit to an editor depends on your status as a writer (new and unagented writers are often limited to shorter synopsis submissions) and the house you are targeting. Know your guidelines! Do not send a 10 page synopsis when the editor has asked for 2-5 pages. If you are a new writer submitting to Silhouette, for example, you may only send a short 2-5 page synopsis, but it is a good idea to write a longer one for personal use. You’ll find it handy to use a more detailed synopsis as an outline. And, if you should acquire an agent, or sell another book before your current work in progress, you might suddenly have the opportunity to give Silhouette a longer synopsis. Wouldn’t it be nice to have it all set to go?

As for the varying styles of synopsis writing- giving character sketches first, writing the set up first, etc.- choose what works best for you but make certain the editor finds out a few things very early in your summary. Right away, an editor will want to know what type of story it is (insert a high concept tag line here: it’s secret baby story, a cinderella story, a guardian/protector story, a kidnapping, etc.), who the main characters are, and the characters’ internal conflicts within the first two pages. Many writers like to think in terms of goal, motivation and conflict here– what the characters want, why they want it, and what obstacles they must overcome to achieve it.

The beginning of your synopsis is the place for backstory, but don’t get bogged down with more than a couple of lines each for the hero and heroine. Hook the editor with a line as engaging and fun as your story first line. It may help to think of your synopsis in terms of a back cover blurb. This blurb briefly encapsulates goal, motivation and conflict for each character. Your backstory can be inserted as quickly as “Abandoned by her father at the tender age of eight…” Read a few back cover blurbs for inspiration. Can you write your hero and heroine’s goals, motivations and conflicts as succinctly as the marketing folks at publishing houses do? Write a paragraph for your heroine and a paragraph for your hero. You’re off and running.

Summarizing 400 Pages

Now that you’ve briefly sketched your main characters, jump into chapter one. Often, describing the set up of your story takes a disproportionate amount of space because you need to draw the editor into your mini-story. Once you’ve laid the book’s foundation, you can begin to move through the chapters much more quickly, reducing some to a line or two.

The most important thing to remember here, is that you must include the major emotional landmarks from your book— the first jolt of awareness, the first kiss, the conflicts that cause the couple to doubt one another, the point at which they make a deeper emotional connection, the moment they realize they are in love (invariably, different times for each character), the first love scene, the black moment and the resolution. These scenes are the crucial turning points for your hero and heroine, they warrant more space in the synopsis.

When relating the end of your book, be sure to include a paragraph or two explaining why and how your main characters have grown, both as individuals, and as a couple. How do they complete each other? Explain how they have overcome their character flaws and surmounted their conflicts. Editors want to see character growth. Don’t make them guess— spell it out in no uncertain terms. This is the place to conclude the internal plot line of the book and show the reader why this couple has what it takes to stay together forever.

Points to Remember

Throughout the synopsis, show the emotional tone of your story. If you write humor, allow your synopsis to showcase that style. Don’t surprise the editor by writing an emotionally gripping synopsis and then handing her a manuscript that is light hearted and fun. The same goes for the language of your synopsis. If you write medievals, use vocabulary and phrasing that reflects the era– your heroine can’t explode with rage, and your hero can’t plaster himself against your heroine (no explosives, no plaster in that era). Keep your synopsis consistent with the style and tone of your book.

Focus on the romance. The unique twist you’ve given to your story’s intrigue element may be fascinating to you, but it’s only fascinating to a romance editor as it relates to the developing love between the hero and heroine. First and foremost you need to develop the romance— that means privileging the internal plot line over the external plot line. A common new writer mistake is to ignore the internal development. How many of us, when asked to summarize our stories, go through a laundry list of the external events that hero and heroine must suffer through? The hero returns from war, he gets caught in a rainstorm with the heroine, then the barn roof caves in on them,… No, no, no! Your synopsis must show how the hero’s homecoming makes the heroine question her superficial affection for the other man she nearly wed, how getting caught in that rainstorm made them physically aware of each other for the first time, and how the barn roof collapsing made them realize life was too precious and fleeting to waste on anything else but each other. The former is external, the latter weaves internal and external together to highlight the romance.

Because the emphasis is so firmly on your hero and heroine, you’ll want to use a sparing hand with your subplots and secondary characters. If you can get away with it, especially in a shorter synopsis, do not name any characters besides the hero and heroine. When you need to discuss other characters, you can refer to them simply as the hero’s grandfather, or the heroine’s best friend. Even when space allows for more secondary characters, choose carefully who you decide to name. Only reveal the names of the most important characters besides the hero and heroine so you don’t clutter your synopsis with too many people. Be careful too, that you don’t introduce anyone’s name prior to the hero’s and heroine’s. Readers assume the first character mentioned is one of the main characters, so don’t first refer to Bob when it’s Jared who will make the heroine weak in the knees.

While you might never grow particularly fond of synopsis writing, inevitably you will see the important role the synopsis plays in selling. When you sell on proposal as a published writer, your synopsis must be clear and detailed to give the editor enough information to decide whether or not to buy the book. If you are an unpublished writer, your synopsis can make the editor toss aside your book if she hasn’t learned the internal conflicts by page two.

The synopsis is one of the most powerful tools in your writer’s arsenal. Why not dust yours off today and see if you give it the refinement and polish it deserves?