Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Dreaded Synopsis

I hate writing synopses.

I mean, no big surprise there. I don't really know anyone who does. Because summarizing a manuscript you've poured your heart, soul, tears and the occasional fingernail into is difficult and tedious and kind of dispiriting. All that hard work, boiled down to a few measly paragraphs? How could you.

I get it. I understand how painful and counter-intuitive the concept of a synopsis is to our nature as writers--you know, to be succinct and flavorless and all that. But the synopsis is also one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal as a writer, both to the creation process, the revision process, and for getting your work out there in front of agents and editors. A synopsis is like a sieve for plot holes--they become glaringly obvious as you work your way through the story. I highly recommend writing a synopsis between your first and second draft to find all the places water is dripping through.

But first, before we dive into tips and tricks for writing this heinous beast, I want to talk about what I mean by a synopsis.

- A synopsis is a summary, more or less, of what happens in your manuscript--start to finish. It should include your inciting incident, climax, and ending.

- Most of the time, a synopsis is 1-2 pages, but it depends on who's asking for one. Before querying agents, I recommend writing a synopsis of this length in case you're asked for it. (They're especially important when you're writing a series--though new authors are usually warned against pitching a series to an agent. However, if your book has series potential, it's a good idea to have a synopsis of each sequel ready to send over should you receive a request.)

The trick, though, is deciding which plot points and story arcs are important enough to include--and deciding which ones to leave out. You only have 1-2 pages to work with, after all.

And thus, the pain begins.

So how does a writer approach a task so counter to our creative process? I, personally, attack synopsis-writing the way I attack regular writing: write everything now, and trim the fat later.

I'm sure there are more efficient ways to do it. You could, for instance, write a skeletal outline of your book, and stick the synopsis-flesh on it from there; you could start at the end and work your way back to the beginning, so you know what's important and what's not; you could probably also just smear salad dressing on some paper and who would know the difference?

Well, I have a few tips to help differentiate your synopsis from Thousand Island.

1. Ruthlessly cut sub-plots.
So your main character's best friend is secretly a witch hunter and it'll be revealed in the next book. I know, you're very clever. Those little telling things she says, the hints she drops by accident--that should go in the synopsis too, right?

CUT. Slash. Burn. Use the leftovers on your garden.

I don't just mean the little sub-plots, either. To get that thing ground down to 1-2 pages--and to still have space left over for style and flair--you're going to have to kill more than just a few piddly darlings. I once had to cut an entire romantic sub-plot just to focus on the part of the story that was really important.

In fact, think of it like a bunch of threads, with one big one in the middle. Now imagine removing every single thread except that one. There, I just wrote your synopsis for you.

2. Skip steps. This ain't no cake recipe.
So remember that thread from before? Your main story arc? Consider every single branch of that story arc on its way from inciting incident to climax to resolution. What are all the plot points required in order to move that story forward? (Discarding all secondary story arcs and sub-plots and brief stops for gas.)

Now keep those branches--those plot points that move that main story forward--and scrap the rest. I know you've worked really hard for those cute intermissions and comic breaks, but for now, we don't need to know it. The writing will speak for itself.

3. Cut the peasants, too--I mean, secondary characters.
So his sister's best friend has a cool car and drives them all over town on their quest to locate the missing quirky girl character. That's really fantastic--it is. But it's totally not necessary to your synopsis.

Pull out anyone who isn't a primary player in the main story arc. And while you're at it, trim down those character descriptions, too--unless it directly relates to the progression of the plot.

4. It doesn't have to be Beethoven.
Seriously, it's a synopsis. Agents get it, editors get it--summaries just are not our thing. So don't worry! Stop stressing! Just get that story down on paper as succinctly as possible. All the agent is looking for is that you have a cohesive plot and storyline; that you start the story and resolve it, and what the main landmarks are on the journey. If it accomplishes that base requirement, you're already ahead of the pack.

Not that it's a bad thing to infuse your synopsis with some of your voice and style--but for some of us, that's a tall order. So don't let it bog you down!

Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.


  1. When I write a synopsis, I pretend I'm telling a friend about a movie I just saw. That helps me focus on the important points and keeps me from sounding like a robot. ;)

    1. That's a really great idea! May I steal it? :p