Thursday, April 14, 2016

#Writingtips: Writing the Dreaded Synopsis

All publishers want a synopsis of the book before they consider reading your work. If you’re anything like me, the mere mention of the word causes heart palpitations and cold sweats. I hate writing them and well...I just hate writing them.

What is a synopsis?

If you don’t know, don’t fret. Everyone has to learn everything sometime. If you’ve finished your book already, you would have encountered this by now. In layman’s terms a synopsis is a summary of the major plot points in your story that introduces the characters, shows the character development, highlights the conflict and reveals how the conflict is resolved.  

How to go about writing a synopsis

This month Randy Ingermanson gave some tips on how to approach this nightmare called synopsis. For those who do not follow him yet, you could follow worse people during your writing career. He doesn’t do the SPAM thing, but once a month, you get a newsletter filled with valuable tips and tricks of the trade. Now I’m not saying his way is the best way or the only way to approach writing of a synopsis, but it sure is one way to consider when you’re faced with the daunting task of putting the synopsis together.

Here’s the relevant part of the newsletter taken verbatim:

3) Craft: How to Write a Synopsis

One of the most common questions novelists ask is “How do you write a synopsis?”

First, let’s define what a synopsis is, because it’s sometimes called an “outline” which is a confusing term. Many of us learned how to make an “outline” in third grade, using Roman numerals and capital letters to break down a nonfiction piece into smaller and smaller chunks. That’s not what a synopsis is for a novel. No Roman letters will be killed to produce your synopsis.

A synopsis is a short summary of your story, told in narrative form using complete sentences. Usually it’s done in third person, present tense. Most editors and agents want to see a synopsis, and the typical length they want is two pages, single-spaced. Always ask them what length they’re looking for, and give them that length. 

Two pages is typical, so I’ll assume that’s the target for this article. Two pages single-spaced works out to about 1000 words. 

There are two common ways to write that 1000 words:
1. Expanding your one-paragraph summary 
2. Summarizing your scene list 

Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.

Expanding Your One-Paragraph Summary

Use this method if you haven’t written your novel yet. 

Start by writing a one-sentence summary and a one-paragraph summary (as described in the Craft column of the last two issues of this e-zine). Then expand each sentence of the one-paragraph summary out to three short paragraphs.

The one-paragraph summary contains five sentences:
1. An introductory sentence that summarizes the setting and one or two of the lead characters. 
2. A sentence summarizing Act 1 of the book, which ends in some sort of disaster and a call to action for the lead character. 
3. A sentence summarizing the first half of Act 2, in which the lead character tries to solve his main problem the wrong way, and fails badly. 
4. A sentence summarizing the second half of Act 2, in which the lead character tries to solve his main problem the right way, and fails spectacularly. 
5. A sentence summarizing Act 3, in which the lead character goes right up to the edge of Ultimate Disaster and either succeeds or fails. 

I’d recommend expanding out that first sentence into about three short paragraphs. One might summarize the setting. The other two might each introduce one character.

Then each of the other sentences need to be expanded out into three short paragraphs apiece, explaining the three main story developments in each quarter of the book. 

That gives you a total of fifteen short paragraphs, which will fit nicely into two pages. You may go a little under if your novel is short. You may go a bit over if your novel is long. Don’t settle for half a page. Don’t go overboard with four pages.

Don’t overthink this process. Give yourself an hour. Drill out fifteen paragraphs. Read it over a couple of times. Stop.

You can come back in a day or two and polish. Done.

Summarizing Your Scene List

Use this method if your novel is already written. (If you’re trying to find an agent or sell your novel to an editor, they’re going to want a synopsis even if your novel is completely written. That sounds grossly unfair, and maybe it is, but it’s reality. It’s not because they hate you. It’s because it makes their job easier. You need them more than they need you, so grit your teeth and do it.)

A typical novel might have 50 to 120 scenes. On average, let’s say it’s 100 scenes. Your synopsis is supposed to be about 1000 words. 
That works out to roughly 10 words per scene. That’s not enough to explain a scene in any detail. Therefore, you can’t summarize every single scene of the novel in detail. 
So what do you do?
That’s easy. 

Create a list of all the scenes in your novel. You can do this on 3x5 cards or in Scrivener or in a spreadsheet or in my Snowflake Pro software or however you want to do it. The list should have one sentence per scene, no more.

Group the scenes into clusters of two to seven scenes. You’ll probably have ten to twenty clusters of scenes.

Now write a short paragraph that summarizes each cluster of scenes. If you have fifteen clusters, that’ll work out to fifteen paragraphs, which is right around two pages. 

Again, don’t overthink this. You’ll need two or three hours to create your scene list, by zipping through the story and summarizing each scene into a single sentence. Or you may have already done this before you wrote your novel.

Once your scene list is in place, give yourself an hour to drill out the summary paragraph for each cluster of scenes. Read the whole thing over to make sure the story logic flows. Stop. Come back to it tomorrow and polish it up. That’s it.

Don’t Paralyze Yourself With Doubts

I’ve seen writers get stuck on the synopsis for months. 
Don’t do that. A synopsis is not a big deal. It’s two pages. 1000 words. You could probably type it easily in twenty or thirty minutes. 

Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. Get it down on paper. Polish it later. 

The brutal fact is that most editors and agents hate reading synopses. They’ll insist on having one, but they’ll just skim it. They want to see that your story has conflict and structure. So make sure your synopsis highlights the conflict and the structure. Conflict is about wanting things and not getting them. Structure is about disasters and decisions. Focus on those things in your synopsis.

Once the editor or agent convinces herself that you’ve got good conflict and your story has the usual three-act structure, she’ll move on to the good stuff—your actual writing. If you’re going to have angst, spend your angst where it’ll be most productive—on your sample chapters. 

But don’t angst on your synopsis. Get it written. Then get it right. Then move on.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 14,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit