the heartbreak of writing a synopsis

A while ago, I wrote a post about the process of writing a synopsis. I’m in the middle of synopsis-itis. I’ve just completed a long synopsis of a book, and was asked to look at someone else’s short synopsis. And that brought back some uncomfortable memories.

Before I say anything else, I make this recommendation:

If you are writing your first novel, or the first novel you plan to market, make sure you don’t leave writing a synopsis to the very end, something to do the day before you send off the query.

Because writing a synopsis may well be the most heart-breaking thing you do. You struggle for days, and when you show your efforts to others, only the most the intrepid readers will comment that the whole thing doesn’t make any sense at all. Or that they can’t see a plot.

And you know, the heartbreaking thing is, that if you’ve struggled to write this thing, not because synopses are hard to write (which they are), but because there IS no coherent plot. Or the plot is way too complicated, or plot threads are not complete, and character arcs unsatisfactory. And the trouble your readers have with the synopsis is not because the synopsis is flawed, but because the BOOK is.

So grab that synopsis-thing by the horns and use it as a tool to streamline, simplify and focus you plot. Do it. Save yourself the heartbreak.

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What? You want me to reduce my lovely book to HOW MANY words?

Ah, synopses. Lovely, no? I guess we all know the feeling. You get a request for a partial. Three chapters, yay! Include copy of original query – easy. And include a one-page synopsis. Oh dear. Because the last time you looked at your synopsis, it was 5 pages long, and structured in outline-redux fashion, y’know, where every line represented some thing happening in the story. And then they went here, and then they went there, and so on, and so forth. How on earth do you reduce that into 250 words?

I don’t claim to have the ultimate answer in writing synopses, and I’m guessing the ultimate answer is different for all people, and won’t work the same for every book, but here are a few thoughts I’ve gathered about writing a short synopsis. Some of the points may contradict each other. Each point in this list signifies an approach you can take to writing the short synopsis. It’s not a follow-these-instructions type of list.

1. Forget the long synopsis/outline. Better still, forget the flow of events of the book. A short synopsis is not about the who, when and how, it’s about the WHY. Write about the character’s aim and about who/what is going to stop him/her from reaching this aim, not about where they went in order to achieve their goals.

2. Work from the top down, rather than the bottom up. Write a logline of a format like this: [main character] wants to [aim], but [antagonist] does [some bad thing] to stop him/her. Then use the logline to structure the synopsis.

3. Make use of your beta readers. Ask them to write a short summary of the essence of the book. Often other people are better at stepping back from a book and describing it in a few words.

4. Focus on one character, one plotline.

5. Make it sound interesting. The word synopsis seems to induce sleep in authors. Many synopses are written in boring, long sentences, half of which start with the words When or Meanwhile. Erk.

6. Show off your world. Does it have some unique worldbuilding feature? Make sure you include it.

7. Let others read it to make sure the whole thing makes as much sense as possible. Cut plotlines that are mentioned once but have no concluding statement in the synopsis. Simple is better.

Got any additional tips?