A Test of Writing Skill: The Synopsis

I don’t know who said it, but to write well is to write concisely. Yes, I know there are plenty of writers who get away with flowery language and overly long descriptions of events and objects that don’t contribute much to the story, but in general, concise writing keeps your reader interested.

For those of us out there who also write non-fiction articles, we know that writing concisely is an absolute must to stick to word count. This sometimes means chopping down a 1500-word piece to fit into a 900-word assignment. It’s painful, but to get paid, you have to make the editors happy.

Writing concisely takes practice. It means finding the best descriptive word, the most active verb and the tightest dialogue tags. This is just good writing and you should be doing this every time you pick up a pen or sit down to the computer. But let me tell you, if you want the true test of writing concisely, write a synopsis.

THE SYNOPSIS

The synopsis is an overview of your book and is mainly done for fiction. You’ll need to do one if you plan to submit to agents or traditional publishers because although many of them will want to read a few chapters, they also want to see where your story is heading to see if it’s logical and marketable. In my case, I’m submitting The Trials of Hercules to a contest that requires a synopsis as part of the entry.

A one-page synopsis.

Yes, one page. Some agents/publishers want more, up to 25 double-spaced pages. But many want a one- to two-page synopsis (thankfully they allow it to be single-spaced). And let me tell you, this is hard.

To make a one-page summary of the book means I have to condense a 114,000-word novel into a (with a little margin fudging) 900-word document.

Talk about your concise writing!

WHEN TO DO IT

Some writing advice folks say to write your synopsis before you begin your novel. Not a bad idea, but it doesn’t work for me. Even though I write an outline and figure out what needs to happen in each chapter, my fiction books change as I write them. Characters take on new aspects of their personality, new scenes occur and the overall “feel” of the book isn’t solid until a couple drafts go by.

If you’re a super-awesome outliner, yes, you can write your synopsis before you ever type the words “Chapter One.” Folks who write with absolutely no outline may want to wait until you think your book is “done” before writing the synopsis since things will change as you go through each draft.

For those of us in the middle, who write a very rough summary of the book before we start. This summary can serve as a basic outline, but the synopsis should wait until we’ve nailed down the full story and our characters..this could take until the second or third draft.

In truth, it’s up to you when to write your synopsis. It can be helpful to write it before you start or you may want to wait until you know your story better. I know that’s sort of “non-advice,” but the timing of your synopsis depends on your own writing style.

WHAT GOES INTO YOUR SYNOPSIS?

Hook. Line. Sinker.

As with so many aspects of writing, your synopsis should start with a hook, something to draw the reader into the story. Work on this hook because you can also use it in your queries, in press releases, on your website and in other promotional bits.

This hook could be the unique setting of your story (good for horror, sci-fi, historical or fantasy), with a character’s quandary (good for romance, literary or historical) or the driving conflict of the story (good for horror, suspense, thriller, mystery, literary or historical). The best hook is a single sentence, but a short paragraph is also okay. For The Trials of Hercules, I went with the setting angle:

In a future world that resembles the city-states of Ancient Greece, myths come to life as the heroes of Osteria contend with the whims of the gods

Next, you want the line of the story. This is hard. You need to follow the main thread of your novel as tightly as possible, especially if you have to do the dreaded one-page synopsis. Cover the bare bones of your story without leaving out the characters’ motivations and goals.

As you write the synopsis, try to ignore the side lines, or as we writers call them: the subplots. I know this can be difficult, but if you have limited space, you need to decide which subplots truly matter. If a subplot plays into the main story line, include it, but only briefly.

For example, in The Trials of Hercules, one of the subplots involves an affair between the antagonist’s wife and his servant. This doesn’t play much into the main line of the story so it didn’t make the synopsis. However, the subplot of the relationship between Herc and Iole has a very strong influence on the main story line and earned a short mention–four sentences in the entire synopsis.

With a one- or two-page summary of your novel, you are going to have to limit details of events. Rather than dwelling on every aspect of the story, hone in on the key plot turns. In other words, you want your synopsis to be a series of action, decision, reaction, action, decision, reaction, and so on.

In The Trials of Hercules, Herc must complete a series of tasks. With only one page, I had no room to cover each task, but was able to generalize saying things like:

Within the first two tasks, Herc gains Portaceae a great sum of money as well as increasing his and Iolalus’s popularity with the people. Eury spends all the money on himself and his wife, ADNETA, rather than on much-needed repairs to Portaceae. Over several more tasks, Herc learns he may not have killed his children and is perplexed by other gods calling him “brother.”

I then used the space I saved to cover Eury’s treachery, Herc’s battles with his conscience and the like. This isn’t to say the events within the tasks aren’t significant, but the motives of the characters and their reactions are more important when giving an agent a sense of the story.

And then the sinker, or rather, the ending.

Yes, the ending.

Agents/publishers want to know how the story ends (again, to see if it is logical). Don’t play coy trying to allude to the ending or ending your synopsis with a question like, “Will he make the right choice?” DO NOT DO THIS! Include the choice. Trust me, agents have much better things to do than post your synopsis spoiler somewhere online.

THEN WHAT?

You’ll probably find that despite your efforts to stick to the bare bones of the story, your synopsis is too long. Once you’ve written it, hone it down. Tighten up sentences. Limit description. And, yes, write more concisely. This is what makes the synopsis such a great writing exercise.

Oh, and character names. The first time you mention a character name, you need to draw attention to it. You can do this by making the name bold or by using ALL CAPS. Do not do both – it looks a bit amateur. Hint: Using bold in some fonts takes up less space than all caps. Good to know if you’re really pressed for space. After the first mention, just type the name out in plain font.

“BUT I SELF-PUBLISH”

Even if you aren’t going the traditional publishing route, write a synopsis. It’s excellent practice and teaches you to hone in on which aspects of your story are the absolute most important bits. Knowing those super important bits can help you during the revision process – after all, if a scene is important enough to be included in the synopsis, it should get more attention, more emotional development, more nail-biting moments than a scene that didn’t make the synopsis.

This isn’t to say you should ignore the scenes that didn’t make the synopsis cut, but they will carry less weight than the key components of your book. Spend a little less time on them, but still make all of your writing as perfect as it can be.

 

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