Welcome to Week Two of how to write awesome pitches (’cause conference season is soon upon us!). Last week, I covered how to write a log line. This week, it’s the dreaded synopsis.
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?
I wrote a one-page synopsis for my project. I find the style difference between writing fiction and writing a synopsis challenging. The middle of the synopsis is a much drier version than the story – more of a this happened, then this happened, etc.
Exactly. Telling, not showing. I need to carve my 2-pager down to one page. It’ll be interesting to see what I keep.
I used to write longer synopses for my books, but now I stick to one page, and I keep it really simple. Protagonist, what she wants. Antagonist, what he wants. The conflict. The resolution. Done. I leave out the setting altogether unless I can do it in three words and it’s important to the conflict; ditto the secondary characters. I could well be wrong about that structure, but every time I add more detail, it just seems to deflect from the core story. And I can’t imagine agents and editors wanting to read even a three-page synopsis. I mean, if I were an Elmore Leonard-esque agent looking for things to acquire, the second and third page of the synopsis is the part I’d skip.
I’m going to work on this before next week. I really want to get it down to one page, if for no other reason than I can prove to agents/editors/myself that I can whittle my story down to a concise 500 words.
I really hated synopses until I did some contest judging. When I had to evaluate contestants’ entries, I finally understood what the bedamned things did. After you’ve read (and enjoyed) the sample pages, you need to know where the author is going with the story. It amazed me how often there was a total disconnect between the pages I read and the story described in the synopsis. And now I’m totally on board with the one-page version described by Kay above. I replaced my three page version with a 500-word overview and I think it works better.
I’m with you on the contests…it’s interesting to see a 5-page synopsis — sometimes after reading it I still can’t tell you what the story is about!
This is a great point, Jilly. Judging contests really help put you into an “editor” mindset — and if one can divorce oneself from one’s work and look at it like an editor, I think it can be very useful.
I don’t think I read a single useful synopsis (lots of good pages, though). Some people were hiding the ending (did they really know what the ending was?), other people seemed to think a synopsis was a chance to get all schmaltzy — “Together, they find love and happiness that will last through the ages.” Bleh.
What happened? Who, what, when, where, how, why? That’s another useful metric.
And if the synopsis has nothing to do with the first 50 pages, someone has probably started in the wrong place.
Justine, I like the way this guy shakes out the story to get the important elements out. (-: Heading over to read the link! Glad you found him.
I’m glad I found him, too. He’s got info on high-concept, as well, but it’s a bit too…I don’t know…advanced (?) for me. It’s what I’m struggling with the most. But his ideas on log lines and synopses are fantastic!