Despite our dislike of synopses, we also know that sometimes they are necessary, whether the agent you’re querying asks for one, whether your editor wants to know what your next masterpiece will be, or whether your agent needs one for subrights purposes. Janice Hardy has a great post on how to write a synopsis, in which she lays down some of the basic rules (third-person present, length, etc.) and breaks down the document into plot-structured sections, but here are a couple of additional tips we’ve found useful in polishing up that sucker once the first draft is down:
1. Conflict and tension are key.
Though by its tell-rather-than-show nature, a synopsis is inevitably less exciting than your actual novel, this doesn’t mean it should be flat-out boring. After all, you are using your synopsis to try to convince someone to read your novel. You know that delicious dose of torture you mete out to your characters and readers—that oh my god, all is dooooooomed, nothing will ever work out! as your characters are faced with obstacles to their goal? Well, as you’re polishing, keep in mind those central conflicts, those plot twists that contribute to the sense of impending doom, and try to keep up the tension vis-à-vis them throughout the document. You can even use those paragraph breaks for cliffhangers.
For example, let’s say your main character is a teen time traveler who is trying to keep his girlfriend from being fatally shot two years in the future, and he’s just gotten stuck in the past. (No worries, guys, this is all from the cover copy.) You probably don’t want to say, “Jackson gets stuck in 2007, so he decides to do what he can from there to save Holly.” Blech, that’s boring, and totally lacking tension. What about, instead: “Panicking, Jackson jumps to 2007. But once he’s there, he’s stuck—and has no idea how to save Holly.” Paragraph break, and then tell something that Jackson does to try to save her. [*] This is all essential plot info, but gives us hints about character motivation and with the structure has managed to keep us wondering what will happen next. (I hope!)
2. In making sure the stakes are as clear as possible, simplicity is key.
your coming-of-age story takes place over several summers at the family beach house is important, your synopsis probably isn’t the place for those gorgeous oceanfront views.
You want to streamline on a sentence level, too: make it as easy for your reader to understand what’s going on as possible. Imagine how confusing synopses would be if they were written Virginia Woolf style!
3. Lastly, though you needn’t worry about it in your first draft, as you polish don’t dismiss the possibility of infusing your synopsis with your novel’s tone and your narrator’s voice.
So if in your story world your main character uses the expression “sofa king” instead of a certain curse word, you might be able to work it in: “Keek’s dad is hardly around, which is sofa king unfair because if he hadn’t been so deceitful and depraved she wouldn’t even be stuck here.” (The “deceitful and depraved” bit is also from the novel.) This line introduces one of the conflicts—Keek’s mostly absent father—and also makes us want to know: what did her dad do that was so deceitful and depraved? Plot, tension, and voice.
Have you written synopses? What other useful tips would you offer?
[*]Full disclosure: This, and the remaining examples, are all clients of Suzie's. But don't their books sound awesome?