As most of you know, a synopsis is a short version of your story, a sort of 10,000 foot view. When agents and editors ask for a partial and a synopsis, they’re looking for two things:
- Can this person write (they’ll determine that from the partial), and
- Can this person plot (is their story a series of unfortunate events, or is there some smokin’ GMC going on?)
To many people, writing the synopsis is incredibly intimidating. You think about all the great story pieces in your book that you’re sure the agent/editor needs to see. Well, they don’t.
Graeme Shimmin, whom I mentioned in my log line post last week, has an excellent “how to” for writing what he calls the “Synopsis of Power.” It sort of follows the Killogator™ formula for writing a log line.
First, you have to identify your story’s archetypes – in particular, the protagonist, antagonist, quest, prize/goal, and guardians.
The huh-what? Okay, protag and antag I get, but quest? Prize/goal? Guardians? I’m not writing a Hero’s Journey-type story.
Never fear. You know what these things are. Shimmin defines them as:
- Setting – when and where the story is set.
- Protagonist – (sorta self-explanatory)
- First Problem the protagonist faces and the Antagonist causing it
- Quest – how and why the protagonist sets about starting it.
- Guardians (in chronological order – the friends, enemies, clues, events etc.) that the Protagonist deals with.
- Conflict (internal or external) – what it is and how it complicates the protagonist’s Quest.
- Lastly, the Prize/Goal (how they got there and what it is).
Here’s what I have for Three Proposals:
- Setting – 1815 England, just as Napoleon is leaving Elba for his 100 Days
- Protagonist – Susannah Cressingham, ward of her uncle; Nate Kinlan, Earl of Rainsford, former spy
- First problem – Susannah’s uncle informs her she’s marrying his friend.
- Quest – Susannah decides to marry someone of her choosing; Nate decides to use Susannah to get to her uncle
- Guardians –Viscount Brisley, her uncle’s choice of husband; Nate’s three sisters; Brisley moves up the marriage timeline; Nate’s friend Guy, who comes up with the idea to marry Susannah for pretend; Pressure from Brisley’s true love to get the money now; Uncle’s need to push back wedding timeline; pretend marriage
- Conflict – For Susannah, it’s getting married; for Nate, it’s Susannah getting married (and cutting him off from access to her uncle); for Uncle, it’s Susannah marrying ahead of schedule; for Brisley, it’s not getting Susannah’s funds.
- Prize/Goal – Susannah wants to inherit her money to save her sister; Nate wants to find evidence against Uncle; Uncle wants his agreed-upon half of Susannah’s massive dowry; Brisley wants all of Susannah’s money to give to his true love, Pauline, Napoleon’s sister
These are the pieces you need to include in your synopsis. Use them with the following advice from literary agent Carly Waters, who suggests:
- Take time to set up the premise (setting, goal, etc.)
- Focus on conflict
- Outline the character’s growth arc — you can do this by showing how the character reacts to certain events
- Focus on plot
- Reveal the ending
The last one is big. Your synopsis should not read like the back copy of a book. You’re not teasing anyone. You’re revealing the story from beginning to end.
Also be sure to write the synopsis in third person (no matter which POV your book is written) and in your voice, not your character’s. Think of the synopsis as a set of instructions about what happens in your book from beginning to end. Avoid needless details and (this may shock you) don’t be afraid to TELL, not show. This is the one time you can get away with it! (BUT don’t put in lots of needless description, either. Remember, keep it lean!)
Waters also advises writing a one-page and three-page synopsis, so you’re prepared for whatever the agent/editor you’re querying requests.
Last summer I wrote a two-page double-spaced synopsis (about 500 words) that I’m fairly happy with; however, there are a few things I’m missing, namely the character arc. You can view my current synopsis here, then next week, in my post on high-concept, I’ll provide a link to revised one- and three-page versions.
What do you find most tricky about writing a synopsis?