Are you staring down the unhinged jaws of the synopsis beast? Feeling its hot, sticky breath on the back of your neck?
Writing a synopsis can be a daunting task, but when you throw that puppy a bone, he’ll behave nicely. Promise.
Let’s start with the pre-writing.
Like with brainstorming a novel, a bit of work on the front end goes a long way, whether starting on the synopsis after you’ve finished your manuscript or when the story idea is still in its earliest stages.
The two pre-writing strategies I recommend are outlines and brain dumps, depending on how our creativity flourishes best. Once we write everything we know about the story, we can decide how much to include based on the requested length. Most agents/editors/contests list formatting guidelines, but if you aren’t sure, it’s best to trend short and submit no more than 5 double-spaced pages.
So, what should be included in a synopsis?
Depending on the length, you should focus on the story lines that best show the external conflict and the threads that are most central to the story’s genre. So if it’s romantic suspense, the synopsis will place top priority on the romantic and suspenseful storylines in the novel.
As we’re brainstorming, it’s best to treat each thread like an individual story and identify its beginning, middle, and end to ensure the synopsis doesn’t have plot holes – even if the novel ties things up neatly. Yes, opposed to a back cover summary, a synopsis gives away what happens at the end. Agents and editors want to know how the conflict resolves itself and also how the main characters have grown along the way.
So let’s pretend we’re writing a romantic suspense novel. In our synopsis brainstorming, we will summarize how the danger unfolds from the beginning when the character first feels that fear, to different events and near-misses, to the point where the confrontation comes to a head, to the end when the villain is abated. And then we’ll do the same with the romance: From the moment the hero and heroine are first introduced in the story, to events that forward their romance, to (hopefully) their happily-ever-after. Doing this in bullet/list form, or at least separate paragraphs, helps tie the threads together and integrate these plot points when it’s time to create the synopsis.
As a bonus, if you’re writing your synopsis before the novel, this story thread brainstorming tactic can help with plotting. It works for this die-hard pantser because it shows which type of scene naturally belongs at a given point based on where the story is going.
So, how do we keep a synopsis from becoming a list of sequential events?
Goal, motivation, conflict (GMC)
As all of the plotting experts say, the characters’ goal, motivation, and conflict are the core of a synopsis and must be illustrated in every plot point. Instead of reading like a black-and-white list of events, the GMC paints the synopsis with color and character and reveals your storytelling flair. If you’re still unpacking what happens in your story, this is a great place to start.
What is your character’s main goal in the story driving their actions? What are the stakes behind why they want this to happen more than anything? What are the forces trying to prevent them from happily ever after—internal and external? How does each event in the story line influence or further the character’s GMC?
In our hypothetical romantic suspense synopsis, we must show how the characters’ fear and romantic chemistry evolves so the audience’s sympathy grows with them and readers care what happens next. (And notice the key word above is show, not tell.)
Once brainstorming is complete, weave the story threads together sequentially. Condense the 100,000-word novel into a riveting bedtime story – except one that won’t put your audience to sleep – by showing the arc of the characters’ GMC: how what they want changes as they grow and how the events of the story shape them.
The GMC emphasis also helps weed out what doesn’t need to be included in the synopsis or what we can gloss over to keep things concise. If a scene or smaller storyline doesn’t move the plot forward or show evolution in the characters’ goal, motivation, or conflict, then cut it so it won’t derail the audience’s interest. It’s important not to let them get so full on the breadbasket that they miss the meat and potatoes of the story.
How can our synopses stand out from the crowd?
When the synopsis is on paper, here’s a checklist of questions to help make it the best it can be:
• Have you adhered to the requested formatting guidelines?
• Does the synopsis communicate your writing style and voice?
• Just like with writing a novel, do word choice and sentence structure style techniques capture interest?
• Is the writing concise and polished? Have you had a second pair of eyes on it?
• Is each plot thread wrapped up by the end of the synopsis?
• Did you communicate the characters’ goal, motivation, and conflict throughout the plot summary?
Is synopsis writing the bane of your writerly existence? Do you write them before or after your novel is complete? Tell us your best tips!
Today I'll be giving away a 3-5 page synopsis critique to one FANTASTIC commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
About Laurie Tomlinson: Laurie Tomlinson is an award-winning contemporary romance author, freelance editor and virtual assistant, and cheerleader for creatives. She believes that God’s love is unfailing, anything can be accomplished with a good to-do list, and that life should be celebrated with cupcakes and extra sprinkles.
Her debut contemporary romance novel releases in May 2017 from Harlequin Heartwarming.
You can connect with Laurie on her website, Facebook page, and Twitter. She is also a regular contributor to The Writer’s Alley blog.