Wednesday, April 8, 2020

BACK TO BASICS: The Synopsis

 The Seekers are thrilled to see so many new aspiring authors stopping by, chatting about their work and emailing us with questions. They've also requested some guidance on things, so we're going to be offering some BACK TO BASICS posts that help new authors, but can also help those authors on the brink of traditional publication because it's a very competitive business. Anything that gives you the needed polish on your work is a wonderful thing! So below, here's a fresh new look at how to write a synopsis:


I don't know anyone who loves writing a synopsis.
There's a reason for this.



Creative writers tend to abhor technical writing. It's not our groove, our wheelhouse, our thing. So when a proposal requires a synopsis, our palms sweat. Heart rate ramps up. And suddenly the refrigerator needs cleaning, the dog needs walking, and surely the car needs washing. Doesn't it?

We'll do pretty much anything to avoid the synopsis, so today, in the midst of turbulent times, let's do a back-to-basics post about something we may dread but are required to have as part of our arsenal.

What is a synopsis?

It's basically a summation of the story. It must include all pertinent points that the author knows about the story.

How do you start a synopsis?

This may vary from author to author. Here are the opening paragraphs of my synopsis for "A Hopeful Harvest" my January Love Inspired release. Note that I started it with a mini-summation of why this story will work between these protagonists, and absolutely why it shouldn't work. This draws the editor's interest if the plot idea works, and that's your first goal is to draw the editor's or agent's interest.

RUTHY'S OPENING PARAGRAPHS:

Jax McClaren excels at helping people while keeping his distance, but when he stumbles onto Libby Creighton’s life, a perfect storm of opportunities erupts. There was her grandfather, a sick fruit farmer caught in the throes of growing dementia. Jax had seen his Grandma Molly through Alzheimer’s years before. His compassion then guides his moves now.

Libby and her daughter live on a Central Washington orchard, in need of skilled hands and a full harvest. As the heir to a major Washington apple and fruit producer, Jax has that one nailed, too. But most of all there was Libby and her daughter CeeCee. He read the pain of the past in their faces, but he wasn’t planning on fixing that.

He could fix the blown-down barns. And the apple crisis. He had connections she knew nothing about.

But her broken heart was something else again so he was determined to come to their farm, put in a day’s work and go back to his lonely cabin in the hills. In the cabin his bad dreams and sorrowed thoughts did no harm. But as time went on he found it impossible to maintain his distance, and maybe that was the best possibility of all.




So now you have the intro done. Seriously, that's the crucial thing in my thoughts. You don't have much time to snag an editor's or agent's interest, sometimes a page is all you get before they set the work aside. Make the most of that opening page (and your cover letter, but that's a different lesson.)

From the intro I go into a brief backstory for hero and heroine to set up their characterization in the story, then a brief summation of the opening chapters, and then... I make stuff up. 

I kind of have to do this because I don't plan scene by scene ahead of time, and 53 books in, I'm okay with that... now if you DO plan scene by scene, then give a brief summation of those scenes. Those scenes should show the action/reaction of hero and heroine, or hero to events. What's moving the story forward? What outside influences (an angry mother, a caustic neighbor, a church that's falling apart, a town on the skids, a storm, a natural disaster, a death, a lost child.... Show a hint of what outside/external conflicts are going to try and wreak havoc with your character's lives. 

This is important, even if it's not 100% accurate to what the final story will be, because you need to show the power thrusts that keep the story moving forward. You may have some leeway here as you actually write the story, but the editor or agent needs to see that the story has good bones. Like a house, with a solid frame, a good book needs good bones because the emotions flow through and around those bones.

Then you want the black moment, as best you know it.  Why does it all fall apart? Secrets, lies, misunderstandings, outside influences, etc. If this is a suspense or thriller, explain the resolution. Don't hold back. Give spoilers because this isn't a casual reader, this is the person offering the contract or representation.

If there is a faith thread, show how that changes or grows as the story moves forward. You don't have to go into big detail, but this is an important thread for Christian fiction, and can also be a major part of the story's moral.

And then the ending. If it's a happy ending, that's pretty simple. If it's a more literary-style ending with vague resolution, you need to show the character's internal growth, even though you're not necessarily wrapping things up in a neat bow.

Add idea for an epilogue if applicable.



If you're self-pubbing, you don't need to worry about a synopsis, right? 

(Ruthy frowns here, because here's the skinny on that...) Honestly, learning to write a solid synopsis helps you to see holes in the story. Editors see that, too, and offer advice on those possible weak spots so you can fix them as you write. 

It's like the basics of writing in junior high. There is a difference between the gradients of all right, good, very good and excellent. Seeing the holes in your story is very hard for new writers. It comes with experience, and the only way to gain experience is to keep writing. And that's exactly what the Seekers want you to do. Keep writing.

And keep learning!

And Ruthy has two copies of "A Hopeful Harvest" to give away today, so leave a comment below and she'll toss your name into the Easter candy bowl...  Then check our Holy Saturday Weekend Edition to see who won!

USA TODAY bestselling author and somewhat bossy but fun person, Ruth Logan Herne is sequestered like everyone else. Only she's on a pumpkin farm in Western New York where mud is currently ruling the day. Fortunately she knows that warmth is coming and she'll be growing all kinds of things and writing sweet books in the wee smalls of the morning when there is no one to bother her... although that's not a problem at the moment, is it? :) Friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, stop by her website ruthloganherne.com or email Ruthy at loganherne@gmail.com She loves to hear from writers and readers. And she actually answers her own mail!


    

 

49 comments:

  1. Hi Ruth:

    I love writing a synopsis. I love writing about writing a synopsis. In my advertising copywriting career I'd get an assignment with product pictures and pages of facts and product points. My job would be to write an ad that would hold the reader's interest and sell the product. Of course, not every fact would be in the ad. Indeed, instead of listing the cold product points, I'd show how the buyer would enjoy the warm benefits of those cold features.

    I think the above provides for a good approach to writing a synopsis. Gather the important events and characters and then feature those that tell the story of the book in a way that holds the reader's interest and makes the reader want to buy the book.

    You don't have to use everything or tell everything. Just use what you need to sell the book. :)

    Sell the sizzle and not the steak.

    Vince

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    1. Vince, good morning! I couldn't agree more. The sizzle, the lure of why the book will be THAT GOOD has to be in those six or seven double-spaced pages. It just takes practice.

      Thank you for your wise words! And stay healthy, my friend!

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  2. I haven't written any stories since moving to Colorado for the new job, but I've been writing for the new job. I see where a synopsis is good. I think I dread the synopsis most when I know my story ideas have holes and I know I don't know how to fix said holes. ( which is the majority of my story ideas floating around inside my head)
    Would love a Ruthy book to read. Although I have been quite busy even with quarantine. Weird.I'd love to have some spare time, but not COVID spare time...

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    1. Deb, my last book to you came back as undeliverable. Send me your new address....

      And I'm so sorry you've had no writing time in Colorado. :( Your time will come. In the meantime it's good to be a reader, sweet thing! And I think lots of folks are a little spaced out over this whole thing. Gathering our thoughts is tricky when the brain is spinning, isn't it?

      So good to see you here! Welcome back!

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    2. DebH, how wonderful to see your sweet face on my computer! How's your little guy? Growing tall, I'm sure! We missed you. As they say in the South, don't be a stranger.

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    3. I know, I miss my Deb and Guppie updates!!!!!

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    4. Deb, it's so good to see you!!

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  3. Hi Ruthy, great blog!

    I've grown to appreciate a good synopsis over the years. As you mentioned, it reveals the holes in a story...and lets me know if the story is worth developing. For suspense, I need to include the villain and how he tries to thwart the hero and heroine. I also add a bit about the romance, the near kiss and, again as you mentioned, that terrible black moment when all seems for naught. Plus the fight (almost) to the death in the climax.

    Love the opening you shared to your synopsis. It's almost a back of the book blurb. Great way to hook your editor! As always, you're spot on!

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    1. Debby, thank you! And I should have added those points about suspense, dagnabbit. I wasn't thinking, and possibly hurrying... but you're right, those suspense threads need to correspond with the romance and the faith and the conflicts.... And that's a true weave, right there!

      I think I started using the back cover blurb idea (and I use a tagline for cover letters, although I don't do many of those now... but I still remember how!!!) because if you can snag an editor's interest right away, less chance of being tossed into the rejection file at the first look... but you and I know it's still a long way from that, through editors and marketing and sales to contract... but that's why we keep a bunch of irons in the fire. Because we know this biz takes a bit of time to catch up on things.

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    2. I noticed the same thing, Debby. That intro is like a back cover blurb. Which is a great idea! I usually start with backstory. I may just adapt and change to this!

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    3. You know I started that because it's so hard to know if you've captured the essence of the story in the play by play synopsis... so it was my ploy to grab the attention. And then hope the story delivered!!!!

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  4. I sat down and wrote a synopsis for the manuscript I'm working on now. I'd never done that before and it was HARD! Now I see why everyone hates them so much. The synopsis is as much a work in progress as the work in progress :) Since I'm not pitching this I thought I'd use it as practice to work on my synopsis skills--which are lacking. Thanks for the post. These are great tips.

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    1. They are tough... and the more you do them, the easier they get, but it's a task, for certain.

      Glynis, good for you! I love that you treat all aspects of this like a job, things to be learned. We all did the same thing, and it's been a wonderful blessing throughout the years... Go get 'em, girl!

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    2. For me, writing the story is easier if I start with a good synopsis.

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  5. This is a great post, Ruthy!

    And I can see where my synopsis writing has some weak points - I tend to skip over the intro and move right into the story points. But that's like casting a line with no bait, isn't it?

    One thing I've learned about writing the synopsis is to wait until I've written the first three chapters. By then, I've worked out the kinks in my story line and my characters, and have taken the time to get to know them. The synopsis is much easier to write when you're talking about friends instead of strangers!

    I'm going to be writing another synopsis in the next week or two, and I'll be working on that intro.

    Thanks!

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    1. Oh, I totally agree on this. And (to be honest) my first three chapters tend to get thrown away because it's about then that I realize who my characters are, why she's being almost a jerk, why he's shrugging off anyone and everyone, and why the house is scruffy.... So they're like my practice chapters, and then I can write the real opening and it's got a whole different feel to it... I know Mary tends to do this, and Robin Hatcher has said similar things, and I think it's just the way it works for some... so you're right, I don't even play with the synopsis until I feel like those chapters are right and solid. And that I'm leaving that third chapter on a ripe note. And I always make those opening chapters for a proposal a little longer. I make sure I have the two POV's (in most books) and that each pov gets a good 8-10 pages, so the chapters are usually about 17-20 pages long. That might seem long to some, but it seems to work. I get to develop each character, the setting, even some secondary characters, and the emotional feel for the book and the setting.

      So once I've done that and feel good about it, the synopsis is much easier. I agree wholeheartedly, Jan!

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    2. I think recently I'm more....
      HEROINE BIO
      HERO BIO
      THEN STORY

      I like the intro paragraph. I'm going to remember this.

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    3. Ruthy, I just did this and HAD TO THROW 5000 WORDS AWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      But you know what? All that unnecessary intro stuff? I need it. I'm weaving it in.
      I'M SO GLAD I WROTE IT.
      Plus, I needed to write it. I needed to get to know these characters. It is NOT time wasted.

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  6. May I add that the synopsis is written in present tense and only the lead characters' names are included. The secondary characters are identified by line of work or relationship to the hero and heroine, such as, the hero's mother, the heroine's best friend, the real estate agent, the villain.

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    1. Great point, Debby! I know I've seen that question asked a lot by new writers.

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    2. Debby, great point!!!! Thank you! I'm so glad you're on top of things today.

      Yes.

      Present tense.

      Don't clog it.

      Facts, ma'am. Just the facts. :)

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    3. The secondary characters is right. That slows things down to much. If they have to be mentioned, mention them by how they connect to the hero and heroine. Her no-account sister. His perfectionist brother. His dead dog....ok forget that.

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  7. Thanks for this great information!

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  8. Yay, Ruthy! I always need these back to basics lessons! My plotting method (the plot board!) leads to me writing the synopsis right after I plot all the scenes.

    Then I put a copy of the synopsis at the bottom of my WIP. As I finish a chapter, I delete that part of the synopsis, so the bottom of my WIP and the top of my synopsis are the part of the story I'm supposed to write next. :)

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    1. I am putting my hands over my ears and running away, screaming.... nothing to see here. Nothing to see here!!!!!

      I forgot you have a plotting method. That you use a board. (Ruthy faints dead away)...

      And that actually makes a lot of sense for normal people. So all o' youse normals, you just toddle on over and do it like that.

      After you plot it.

      :)

      OKAY, the great thing about this, is that I wouldn't have had any idea of doing it this way. Like none.

      Zip. Zilch. Nada.

      I figure my way ain't broke, don't fix it!!!

      And I've never plotted a thing in my life except mentally.

      BUT having said that, lots of very successful and really cool authors actually plot their books. I am friends with this one, and I can't even fault her ways because she writes so well and it would make me look like a really horrible person.

      So if you're a plotter, and I will love you either way, try Erica's very organized methodology.

      But Erica, what do you do when someone drops off a baby or a dog gets hit by a car or a random toddler is found in a parked car or a dead body happens to float down a river....

      That you didn't plan for, of course.

      Don't these things happen to you, Erica?

      DON'T THEY??????

      (breathes deeply..... repeatedly..... sighs.....)

      :)

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    2. Erica, me too. This gives me an idea or two for some posts. Things it helps me to write about. To remember some of the skills I think I've mastered but in fact, may not give enough time and thought to in recent days.

      Thanks for the inspiration, Ruthy

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    3. Ruthy, I write historicals. Nobody gets hit by cars! :)

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    4. Wow, Erica. That is organized! I might be a little jealous :)

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    5. Hi Ruth:

      Don't worry about plotters. If a writer can plot well in the first place, she can make midcourse corrections and even plot completely new vectors as needed. NASA plots every miute of a space shot. They build in 'windows' during which unexpected alterations can be made. (They expect the unexpected.)

      Just consider Apollo 13. Everything went wrong and they still plotted a way back home safely. Of course, there is a big difference between following a plot you wrote yourself and following someone else's plot.

      Both experienced plotters and pantsers know what they are doing. Plotters just have the advantage of knowing where they are going.

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  9. I love you're doing basics. I am a beginner, I realize how much I have to learn, but struggle with thinking I need to learn it all at once. I don't have a proccess down & keep trying to remind myself that is ok. I'm trying to plan a book but nay be overthinking the planning & plotting right now.

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    1. Tonya, when I was first starting out, the learning curve was overwhelming! But the first generation Seekers helped me out step by step. I love that we're going back to the basics, too!

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    2. Tonya, first, just write. Don't try to plot and plan too much at first, just stab at it. Have fun with it. Give it a little time, get half a dozen chapters done, then re-examine it....

      Is there a real conflict or are they just being jerks? Or petty?

      Is there some external conflict that gets in their way? (Like the lease on her coffee shop about to run out and his firm is buying that block for demolition and landlord didn't tell tenants until last minute....)

      Is there an emotional draw that is just impossible.... She's married to her work and he's done that before, watched it fail, and vowed to never do it again....

      That kind of thing.

      Be kind to yourself. Just write. See what the characters want to do. And then we re-write, and we keep writing. And if you love it, Tonya, how cool will this be??????

      I'm so excited for you!!!

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    3. Thanks Jan! That's really good to know!

      Thanks Ruth! I'm going to copy & save these questions.

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  10. Such a great post, Ruthy. Synopsis writing, even if you are indy-pubbed is like brainstorming on a page. You're sensible...let's just get to writing-self may say you're wasting time.
    But your MORE sensible...get to writing what??? self needs this. Even if it's not for an editor, make it for yourself.
    In fact, I think a good synopsis might be just what I need now.

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    1. That's so true. It's all about increasing skill levels. Getting that polish strong authors need. And yeah, it's like collecting your thoughts and figuring out what to do when... Such good points, Mary!!!!

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  11. AND...
    FIFTY THREE BOOKS???????????? Isn't that just stunning Ruthy? We started out together with ZERO books. Can you believe all the books we've written? Wow.
    I LOVE THAT NUMBER!!!!

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    1. I know. I honestly still pinch myself and sometimes wonder if it's real, but it seems to be real!!!! :) And haven't we had so much fun????

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  12. It is so impressive all the books you have written. Congratulations

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    1. Lucy, thank you so much!!!! I am thrilled and happy to be doing exactly what I used to dream of doing.

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  13. Ruthykins, how did you know I've been looking to spruce up my synopsis writing? I'm saving this for reference because I struggle with the synopsis. I can make a short story long, but don't try to get me to move the other way. I needed this. Thank you, my friend.

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    1. Mindy, it's just out of our wheelhouse. We like to grab the reader in and add some fluff... But the synopsis is like a play-by-play baseball game by a non-emotional radio broadcaster and you sit at home thinking "WHY ISN'T HE EXCITED ABOUT THAT STRIKEOUT????" :)

      I didn't mention this in the blog, but I also use a mix of sentence lengths in the synopsis, similar to what I do in writing. That makes it less drudge-like.

      Jax couldn't risk it. No way. He'd risked enough already and that cost him sleep on a regular basis. No sane man would drag that mess of crazy into a woman's life, especially a woman with a child.

      And yet he wants to.

      Really wants to.

      But when Libby recognizes the attraction, she retracts instantly. Burned once, twice careful and her goal is to help Gramps and get this farm in the black, even though Mother Nature has put every possible obstacle in her way.

      Time for her superhero cape.


      Back to Ruthy again.... I find if I do the synopsis like that, it sounds more like the book will sound, it does the play by play and I don't run screaming. :)

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  14. While I never got past the basics all those years ago when was trying to write, I still lurk and store up all the great things y'all post because one day God is going to say, "Now's the time." THANK YOU SEEKERS FOR ALL YOUR WORK AND YOUR WILLINGNESS TO SHARE!

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    1. Oh, Pat, you're so welcome! Happy to be here for you when the Good Lord taps you on the shoulder and says, "This is it, sweetness. This one's for you."

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  15. Thanks Ruthy for your advice on synopsis writing. This is going on my bookmarks page.

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  16. All Plots are Pantsered.

    Initially there is no plot from which to write your plot. Plots are pantsered and what can be pantsered can be unpantsered and repantsered. Think of Plotters as Second Echelon Pantsers.

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