Tips on the Evil Synopsis

So, as most of you are very well aware, we at Team Townsend are not great fans of synopses: they spoil the plot and they are often quite boring. I believe Suzie’s exact words were, “they’re evil.”

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. 

As Janice Hardy points out, you don’t want to bog your synopsis-reader down with too many names (stick to the most important characters, and you don’t necessarily have to identify them all by name). Likewise, you want to provide enough world-building to give context for the plot and character developments, but not so much that it detracts from either. So while making clear that 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.

Here’s what I don’t mean when I say this: I don’t mean adding asides or clever remarks simply to convey your narrator’s voice. Here’s what I do mean: looking for places where the plot can be expressed in a way consistent with the narrator’s voice and the tone of the novel, just like you do in your query letter. (Everything in your synopsis should move the plot forward.) Stealing phrases from your novel can be a great way to do this (again, if it moves the plot forward and makes the stakes clear).

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?

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Lindsey R. Loucks said...

I heart this post. I just wrote an evil synopsis, and now hopefully I can make it better. Thank you!

Hermana Tiffany Garner said...

The synopsis is really the only thing keeping me back from querying now. Thanks for the tips! This makes me hopeful that I might actually be able to accomplish this!

Anonymous said...

As challenging as the synopsis can be to write, the process actually helped me to identify a problem in my plot. You could say I have a love-hate relationship with synopses now.

Leah said...

I'm *almost* sorry to respond to a post with a post, but this is pertinent, I promise. I thought you'd get a kick out of it.

Anyway, thanks for the advice - I'll have to re-read mine and see if it needs to be ripped apart.

Sara Rayne said...

I thought I read on here earlier that you do not require a synopsis for queries - is that still the case? Thanks for posting this - very helpful!!

Sarah Goldberg said...

Glad to help!

@Rebecca - I'd bet that's a common experience! It's like learning something doubly well when you have to explain it to someone else: sometimes you haven't realized you don't *quite* understand it until you have to articulate it.

@Ms. Snip - No, Suzie does not require a synopsis when you query her (we'll just skip right over the synopsis because we don't want to be spoiled!), but some agents do.

Sarah said...

So helpful! The synopsis is certainly evil... I always feel like I'm handing the best parts away without any of the development to give them the impact they deserve. :/ Ah, well. Such is life.

Mindee Arnett said...

This is a great post, Sarah. And there's nobody better to have written it then you. You were/are my synopsis muse!

Memoirs of Me & Mine said...

What an interesting post!

Sarah Goldberg said...

@Mindee <3 <3 Teamwork FTW!

Unknown said...

Now you should write and post a complete synopsis as an example...

Anonymous said...

What a great post. Writing the synopsis has been the hardest part of my novel journey so far. There are so many subtleties lost when simply telling what happened! One of the trickier parts I have encountered as well is that some agents what to know the ending, and some don't; some agents want long synopses and some want short, and not all are explicit about what they want. It's a nightmare! Thanks for this as at least my synopsis can be well-written, even if it isn't exactly what they wanted.

J.L. Murphey said...

I've got a t-shirt I picked at a writer's conference which reads..."Not now! I'm working on the dreaded synposis!" It has a picture of a frazzled writer in front of a computer.

While cute and funny, I always wear it when working on one. While synopses are no different than an outline with a few extra words finding the correct words are killer.