This is my CP Heather and her baby, Andy, now five months old, just six weeks past his original projected birth date. Quite a difference from his pic at five weeks, isn't there!
I saw him for the first time yesterday, and actually he's still in "quarantine" and not supposed to be around any but the most necessary people. But I was needed to help them get to a specialist appointment. I'll be able to actually hold him in September.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, synopses... Hm, maybe we could go back to baby pictures... But no, we have a job to do here.
What if I confess I'm sometimes one of those rare authors who actually enjoys writing a synopsis? Will you stone me? Would it help to tell you it didn't always go this way- and in fact sometimes still doesn't?However, I am one of those few authors who sometimes is praised by editors for my "enjoyable" synopses. And that's got to be better than being told, "Well, we know some authors just can;t do a decent synopsis and we don't hold it against them."
Wouldn't you rather hear "enjoyable"? Especially after they've just told you your synopsis it a selling tool for your story?
I might edit and revise a manuscript 3, 5, or even 10 times. I don't regret that. It's what I have to do to get my story right. But a synopsis? Nothing less than 30 to 40 times, I'm certain. Sometimes I think the job is never done, no matter how hard I work on it. I can still pick up synopses for stories I sold long ago and see something I can't believe I didn't spot before. So no way around it, a good synopsis is very hard work.
No one told me how to write a synopsis. Way back then, there were books on how to write a great novel, but nothing on writing that mysterious document that spelled your life or death as a writer. Nobody taught any courses about it, and you couldn't find any information online. Heck, you couldn't find anything online. Chances were, you hadn't even heard the word modem then.
So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do a decent synopsis. I still have one of my earlier ones, and I'll guarantee, it is awful. It's a 12 page list of events in chronological order, in sentences that all have the same structure, short and clipped, and bare. No wonder no one was interested in buying my stories then.
Once, I found a book on how to format manuscripts, and it gave a format for synopsis. I won't tell you what it said, because nobody does those anymore. But no matter who I asked, no one could, would maybe, tell me what I needed to know. There was "You've got to get the emotion into it." "You should layer in the emotion." Yeah, I did ask over and over how to do that. What I got back amounted to blank stares.
And mine were long. The first one I wrote was 42 pages. I did have the sense to not submit it, and realized it was really a story outline, the kind I'd use for myself. With great effort, I got it down to something almost useful. The above-mentioned 12 pages.
So what have I learned over the years? Well, most of that is covered in these three links to some great information for synopsis writers. I swiped this list from another author, Jenna Bayley-Burke, right out from under her nose, because I thought you could use it:
Synopsis Creation-Plot Revision by Alicia Rasley - example of how to fix a bad synopsis
Honing your Synopsis Skills by Joanne Rock - emotional landmarks make the synopsis, not just a string of events
Synopsis by Linda Needham - synopsis worksheet
Certain basics apply, of course, such as using the same basic format you use for your manuscript unless the editor or house specifies otherwise. Generally double-space, but now shorter synopses can sometimes be single-spaced. Cover your entire story. Don't leave off the part covered by your partial unless told to do so by the house or agent to whom you are submitting. And DO NOT leave out the ending. The editor isn't looking for back cover blurb. She wants to know if you have the ability to resolve your story, and she'll almost certainly pass on a submission that tries to tease her instead.
What did I personally do to make my synopses work? Well, I started with my first tool, those very same first excited notes/outline of the story. Sometimes, if I'd finished the story, I'd go back and briefly edit to make the synopsis fit however the story had changed. Then I'd get out my YELLOW highlighter and mark all my major points- plot turning points, emotional turning points, motivations-- everything I thought needed to be in the synopsis. I'd then copy and paste them into a long list, which I would whittle down further by using the PINK highlighter in the same way as I'd done the yellow one. That makes orange, by the way. Delete the stuff that's still only yellow. I'd re-phrase what was left, trying to consolidate sentences. This usually got me down to the 12-15 page stage. Still too long, and it didn't exactly make exciting reading.
Next, I'd look for ways to generalize the plot. Instead of the detailed interaction of the hero and heroine going fishing, I'd just say they went fishing, where he rescued the trapped otter-- whatever, and she saw a softer side of him. No one needed to know they went up highway 14, stopped for gas and ice, and nearly got sideswiped by a logging truck barreling its way down the mountain.
This is true with plot points, too. Sometimes it's really hard for us to choose which plot points are major and which are minor. But here, while working on your synopsis, you need to decide this. In doing so, you will help sharpen and clarify your own view of your story. When you go to write your pitch to an editor, you'll be glad you did, because they'll be looking for a way to express your story concept in a sentence or less. And if you're confused, you can bet they'll feel confused.
Sometimes, if I have already written my story but the synopsis task looms over my head like Damocles' Sword, I start by glancing through my manuscript chapter by chapter and listing the events.
I discovered that by making a separate emotional plot line, which sometimes I run in a separate column side by side with the physical plot, I can see how it's the emotional line, the romantic growth, that makes the story strong. Then it's much easier for me to write sentences that combine the two, while minimizing plot and maximizing emotion.
A number of times my first plot sketch has been good enough to work into a synopsis. This has usually happened when I set out to keep my story-teller voice in the sketch. I just act like I'm explaining-telling- my exciting new story to my best friend. Somehow it has better voice and is shorter, too.
Another approach when I'm stumped, and need a much shorter synopsis but it won't trim down: I go to the extreme in shortening it. All the way to a blurb that would fit on the back of a business card. Sometimes not any more than a sentence. The question I ask: What's the essence of my story? Think Elevator Pitch. How would you describe your story to an editor if she asked you in an elevator, and you know she's getting off on the eighth floor?
Sunrise on the Cornish Coast: Two ladies. One spyglass. Two naked men dashing into the surf. One of them is the man Lady Juliette hoped would never find her.Sure, there's lots more story after that. But this captures the theme, suspense, setting-- go from there. I later expanded this to blurb length, in 50, 100, 150 and 200 word blurbs because I eventually needed all of those for various sites and purposes. Later, for my banner ad, then my video, it became:
She has what he wants- the names of the gold-smuggling traitors. He doesn't know- If she tells him, she dies. If she doesn't tell, she dies. If she can fool him just one more time, she just might survive. But what happens if deception gives way to love?Now, actually, THAT is my story, in a nutshell. But my synopsis is 5 pages long. Same thing, only more so.
This one better encapsulated the entire story the first time I wrote it:
What was intended to be a restorative tonic for women turns out to have an entirely different effect on men. And the bachelors of the Ton are running scared.The object is to keep your tiny blurb in mind as you expand it. Build your synopsis from that point, maybe occasionally checking with your long one where you think you had it just right before. But build like you're putting up house framework, then adding on the remainder. Stop with the framing for a very short synopsis- just the emotional guts with clear but very general plot line. Add more detail for one that's 3-4 pages long, more emotion and motivation, more plot. Then your 7-10 page synopsis can be your mainstay that fleshes thing out. But again, keep your concentration on motivation and emotion.
When you're done structuring it, go back and polish, just like you would your manuscript. READ IT ALOUD. You'll spot repetitions, six sentences in a row starting with "she", plodding sentences that all have about the same structure, missing words or words that didn't get deleted, and things that just don't quite make sense.
Ask yourself, do you have a clear beginning, clear starting conflict? Do you say what hero and heroine want, and why they can't have it? Do you show how they change through the story? Do you define the Black Moment, and portray it with sufficient drama for its type? And do you resolve the external conflict, the internal conflicts, and the romance? If you're not writing a romance, does your story reach a satisfactory conclusion, and do you make it sound satisfactory in your synopsis?
If you've done all that, then polish up your baby and send it off. You've just created a little miracle. Hm. Sort of like little Andy.